Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806)
Without Benjamin Banneker, our nation's capital would not exist as we know it. After a year of work, the Frenchman hired by George Washington to design the capital, L'Enfant, stormed off the job, taking all the plans. Banneker, placed on the planning committee at Thomas Jefferson's request, saved the project by reproducing from memory, in two days, a complete layout of the streets, parks, and major buildings. Thus Washington, D.C. itself can be considered a monument to the genius of this great man.
Banneker's English grandmother immigrated to the Baltimore area and married one of her slaves, named Bannaky. Later, their daughter did likewise, and gave birth to Benjamin in 1731. Since by law, free/slave status depended on the mother, Banneker, like his mother, was---technically---free.
Banneker attended an elementary school run by Quakers (one of the few "color-blind" communities of that time); in fact, he later adopted many Quaker habits and ideas. As a young man, he was given a pocket-watch by a business associate: this inspired Banneker to create his own clock, made entirely of wood (1753). Famous as the first clock built in the New World, it kept perfect time for forty years.
During the Revolutionary War, wheat grown on a farm designed by Banneker helped save the fledgling U.S. troops from starving. After the War, Banneker took up astronomy: in 1789, he successfully predicted an eclipse. From 1792 to 1802, Banneker published an annual Farmer's Almanac, for which he did all the calculations himself.
The Almanac won Banneker fame as far away as England and France. He used his reputation to promote social change: namely, to eliminate racism and war. He sent a copy of his first Almanac to Thomas Jefferson, with a letter protesting that the man who declared that "all men are created equal" owned slaves. Jefferson responded with enthusiastic words, but no political reform. Similarly, Banneker's attempts "to inspire a veneration for human life and an horror for war" fell mainly on deaf ears.
But Banneker's reputation was never in doubt. He spent his last years as an internationally known polymath: farmer, engineer, surveyor, city planner, astronomer, mathematician, inventor, author, and social critic. He died on October 25, 1806. Today, Banneker does not have the reputation he should, although the entire world could still learn from his words: "Ah, why will men forget that they are brethren?"
Banneker's life is inspirational. Despite the popular prejudices of his times, the man was quite unwilling to let his race or his age hinder in any way his thirst for intellectual development.
Benjamin Banneker, known as the first African-American man of science, was born in 1731 in Ellicott's Mills, Md. His maternal grandmother was a white Englishwoman who came to this country, bought two slaves and then liberated and married one of them; their daughter, who also married a slave, was Banneker's mother.
From the beginning, Banneker, who was taught reading and religion by his grandmother and who attended one of the first integrated schools, showed a great propensity for mathematics and an astounding mechanical ability. Later, when he was forced to leave school to work the family farm, he continued to be an avid reader.
Although he had no previous training, when he was only 22 he invented a wooden clock that kept accurate time throughout his life. According to "Gay & Lesbian Biography," Banneker "applied his natural mechanical and mathematical abilities to diagrams of wheels and gears, and converted these into three-dimensional wooden clock-parts he carved with a knife." People from all over came to see the clock.
In 1773 he began making astronomical calculations for almanacs, and in the spring of 1789 he accurately predicted a solar eclipse; that same year, he was the first African-American appointed to the President's Capital Commission.
He never married and is not known to have had any liaisons with women. In one of his early essays he stated that poverty, disease and violence are more tolerable than the "pungent stings ... which guilty passions dart into the heart," causing some historians to view him as most probably homosexual. According to "Gay & Lesbian Biography," Banneker's "self-isolation and love of drink is sometimes cited as at least a partial explanation for his lifelong bachelorhood. But his grandmother, parents, and sisters were known to be people of considerable Christian dominance, and he always lived under their supervision." Also, as he grew older, Banneker daily read the Bible, the teachings of which may have helped quash any gay tendencies.
A self-taught surveyor, in 1789 he was called on to assist George Ellicott and Pierre Charles L'Enfant in laying out what would become the nation's capital.
In 1790, he sold his farm and spent the rest of his life publishing his works on astronomy, mathematics and the abolition of slavery. At the end of 1791, Banneker was publishing his almanac, greatly admired by then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson; the almanac was sent to Paris for inclusion at the Academy of Sciences. Once the almanac's publication was assured, Banneker, having previously corresponded with Jefferson on the intellectual quality of African-Americans, began a correspondence with him on the subject of the abolition of slavery.
Toward the end of his life, he produced a dissertation on bees, a study of locust-plague cycles and more letters on segregationist trends in America. He died at age 75 in Boston in 1806. In 1980, the U.S. Post Office issued a Black Heritage commemorative stamp in his honor.
"A Few Black Gay or Bisexual Men and Women Who Changed the World'' by Aslan Brooke
The definitive biography of Benjamin Banneker is: The Life of Benjamin Banneker, by Silvio A. Bedini. Rancho Cordova, California: Landmark Enterprises, 1984 (originally published in 1972 by Charles Scribner's Sons).
For further information on Benjamin Banneker, see Black Pioneers of Science and Invention, by Louis Haber [New York, 1970], chapter 1 and p. 168-69 (bibliography); or, if possible, visit the Maryland Historical Society's Banneker-Douglass Museum.