Benjamin Banneker – Renaissance Man


Note from the author:  I would like to thank Justine Schaeffer, Naturalist/Director at the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum for reading a draft of this blog and correcting several errors.

Figure 1.  Ground glass lens and slate pencil fragments recovered during excavations of the Banneker homestead.  Photograph courtesy of Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory.

Figure 1. Ground glass lens and slate pencil fragments recovered during excavations of the Banneker homestead. Photograph courtesy of Maryland Archaeological Conservation Laboratory.

Sometimes artifacts that aren’t all that impressive in appearance turn out to have really interesting histories.  The circular fragment of glass in Figure 1 is a ground lens from a telescope or similar optical instrument.  The objects surrounding the lens are slate pencils, used for marking on slate tablets.  What makes these artifacts notable is that they were excavated from the eighteenth-century home of Benjamin Banneker (Hurry 2002).  A self-taught astronomer and mathematician, Banneker is known as America’s first African-American man of science.  He was born in 1731 to free parents in Baltimore County, Maryland and grew up on a small farm in present-day Oella (18BA282).

Taught to read and write by his grandmother, an English woman who married a former slave, Banneker later attended a small Quaker school (Bedini 1972:39).   As an adult, Banneker became friends with George Ellicott, son of a nearby land and mill owner.  The Ellicotts were Quakers who contracted with the Banneker family to provide their mill workers with produce.  Although twenty-nine years Banneker’s junior, George Ellicott shared many of Banneker’s   interests. 

Banneker could best be described as a Renaissance man. In addition to his talents in math and astronomy, he also published six almanacs and participated in the original survey of Washington, D.C.  He kept a journal, wrote poetry, played the violin and flute and enjoyed beekeeping.  In his early twenties, he built a fully functional clock almost entirely of wood, after having closely examined a pocket watch (Bedini 1972).  The clock, which struck the hour, reputedly continued to keep the time throughout the remainder of Banneker’s life.

Figure 3. 1795 printing of Banneker’s almanac.  http://welcometobaltimorehon.com/images/banneker3.jpg

Figure 3. 1795 printing of Banneker’s almanac. http://welcometobaltimorehon.com

After his parents died, Banneker lived at the family farm until his death in 1806.  Banneker was reported to have been buried in the family cemetery at the farm, although the cemetery location has not been discovered.  The house burned in 1806 (on the day of Banneker’s funeral, oddly enough).  In 1983, the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks purchased a portion of the original Banneker property to establish a commemorative park.  Archaeological excavations conducted in the 1980s established the former location of the Banneker house (Hurry 2002).  The over 28,000 artifacts recovered during this excavation are owned by the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks and some of them (including the lens and pencils) are on display at the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum in Oella.  This collection provides a fascinating picture of the eighteenth-century life of a free black family and scientist.

For more information on Banneker and his life, visit https://benjaminbanneker.wordpress.com/

References

Bedini, Silvio A.  1972  The Life of Benajamin Banneker; The First African-American Man of Science.  Maryland Historical Society, Baltimore.  1999 edition.

Hurry, Robert J. 2002     The Discovery and Archeological Investigation of the Benjamin Banneker Homestead, Baltimore County, Maryland (18BA282). Maryland Historical Trust Press, Crownsville, MD.

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