Birthplace: Ellicott's Mills, MD
Location of death: Baltimore, MD
Cause of death: unspecified
Remains: Buried, Mt. Gilboa African Methodist Episcopal Church, Oella, MD
Religion: African Methodist Episcopal
Race or Ethnicity: Black
Occupation: Astronomer, Activist
Nationality: United States
Executive summary: First African-American astronomer
Benjamin Banneker's father and grandparents had been slaves, but he was born free in Maryland. He attended school only once, and only for a few weeks. As a young man, fascinated with a neighbor's pocket watch, he borrowed it, took it apart, and diagrammed how the springs, cogs, and other mechanical parts worked together to keep time. He returned the watch, fully functional, then carved similar pieces from wood to construct a new device that reportedly kept accurate time for fifty years.
He studied astronomy and mathematics texts, and surmised correctly that distant planets circles stars other than our own sun. He self-published Benjamin Banneker's Almanac, an annual calendar predicting the exact times of sunrise, sunset, moon phases, etc. His almanacs included essays, poetry, and political commentary, including his calls for the abolition of slavery, and establishment of a Department of Peace to counterbalance the new nation's Department of War.
In a famous exchange of letters in 1791, Banneker refuted then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson's claim that "blacks... are inferior to the whites in the endowment both of body and mind" by quoting Jefferson's Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal". After challenging Jefferson to debate racial equality, he added that Jefferson should free his slaves on moral grounds. Jefferson replied briefly to Banneker's letter but declined to either debate or free his slaves, and Banneker published their letters in the next edition of his almanac.
He was also a respected surveyor, and assisted Pierre Charles L'Enfant and Andrew Ellicott in platting what would become Washington DC. He is the namesake of DC's Benjamin Banneker Park, overlooking Banneker Circle, about half a mile south of the Smithsonian Institution on the National Mall.
Father: Robert Bannaky (freed slave, d. 1759)
Mother: Mary Bannaky
Benjamin Banneker's Almanac (1792-97)
Risk Factors: Alcoholism
Appears on postage stamps:
USA, Scott #1804 (15 cents, depicting Banneker and surveying equipment, issued 15-Feb-1980)
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