First Black Astronomer Benjamin Banneker
Find out about the first Black astronomer in the US and his efforts to stop the slave trade.

The study of the stars is common to all peoples including Africans who are also known to have studied the night sky. But, in modern history, the first trained astronomer of color is Benjamin Banneker back in the 1700s. He paved the way for modern astronomers like Neil deGrasse Tyson and Doctor Harvey Washington Banks.

Born Free

Banneker was born on November 9, 1731 in the common way that Blacks were born free back in those days. He was born to slaves, but his family was freed. His grandfather was a slave from Africa and his White grandmother was from England. His grandmother, Molly Walsh, was a English dairymaid in England. At 17-years-old, she accidentally spilled a bucket of milk and stood trial for stealing it. She would have been sentenced to death, but English law forbade putting to death anyone who could read. Instead she was sentenced to labor as an indentured servant for seven years on a farm in the British colonies in Maryland. She finished her required seven years of bondage and was given "an ox hitched to a cart, a plow, two hoes, a bag of tobacco seeds, a bag of seed corn, clothing, and a gun." She staked a claim and bought two slaves to help her take care of it which was common at the time. Walsh had no interest in keeping slaves, so she freed them after they were bought and married one, who's name was Banna Ka. Molly was Oprah Winfrey-strong and broke colonial law by marrying a black man.

Molly and Banna Ka had four daughters including Mary. When Mary grew up, she bought a slave named Robert. Like her grandmother, she married him and had several children, including Benjamin. Since most Black people were slaves, there was no BlackPeopleMeet.com. They did the best they could.

Early Education
Education at the time was not accessible to Blacks, but his family taught him to read using the Bible and the boy's intelligence was obvious. By the time he was 15, he was considered a well-educated young man. He also learned to play the flute and violin.

Then, an anti-slavery Quaker school opened that allowed Black people and he learned writing and arithmetic. His teachers changed his name to Bannaky which eventually became Banneker. It was around this time that Benjamin took over the running of the family tobacco farm which was a lucrative crop at the time. His father, Robert had built a series of dams and ditches to irrigate the farm from nearby springs, but Benjamin showed his genius by enhancing the system. He was so successful that, even during a drought, the farm flourished.

The Beginnings of the Astronomer

Then a breakthrough moment happened: Benjamin got his hands on a watch. It seems like a simple thing, but Benjamin's intellect saw the possibilities. He took the watch apart, studied the intricate gears and mechanisms to "study it's workings" and put it back together again. In 1753, taking all that he had learned, he carved a working clock entirely out of wood. It is the first of it's kind in the US and struck the hour. It was so well constructed that it ran for nearly forty years. Finally, his genius was acknowledged and it brought him national attention.

Many described him as "of Black complexion, medium stature, of uncommonly soft and gentlemanly manners and of pleasing colloquial powers." It's hard to believe, but for the time that was high praise.

He came to the attention of an amateur mathematician and astronomer named George Ellicott.  In 1771, the Ellicott family had bought land near Banneker's farm and Banneker supplied their workers with food and also studied the mills. Ellicott loaned Banneker books on the math and astronomy like Mayer's Tables, James Ferguson's Astronomy, and Leadbeater's Lunar Tables. He also loaned Banneker surveying equipment and he began his formal study of astronomy and taught himself enough to begin making solar predictions.

When he sent his first projection of the solar eclipse for April 14, 1789 to Ellicott, Ellicott sent a letter back kindly pointing out a "slight error." In fact, Banneker was well aware of the difference and contradicted the prevailing wisdom of the day by intentionally omitting it. Banneker said he was more intent "upon the true method of projecting a Solar eclips [sic]" This so impressed Ellicott that he got a job doing national surveys which included making detailed sky surveys.

The Almanac of a "Genius"

Three years after this, Banneker began to make calculations for an almanac. When it was complete, he gave the almanac to Ellicott who turned it over to the Honorable James McHenry of Baltimore. McHenry was impressed and submitted it to the Philadelphia firm of Goddard & Angell, who published it in Philadelphia in 1792. It was of superior quality and was considered as accurate as the prevailing almanacs of the time like Benjamin Franklin's.

He published his series of almanacs for six years from 1792 to 1797 and they sold in six cities in four states: Baltimore; Philadelphia; Wilmington, Delaware; Alexandria, Virginia; Petersburg, Virginia; and Richmond, Virginia. So, in a way he was a best-selling author. Books were still a novelty at the time, but almanacs were well valued and had poems, proverbs, and other bits of general information.

At the time, Blacks were generally considered incapable of understanding scientific, mathematical or literary accomplishments much less creating their own. But, what made his almanac truly unique from other almanacs is that he also included commentaries, literature, and fillers that strove to bring about change and highlighted the plight of Black people at the time. He included poetry by Phillis Wheatley and English anti-slavery poet William Cowper, as well as anti-slavery speeches and essays from across America and England.

His almanac was so well regarded that the editors wrote in the preface
Not you ye proud, impute to these the blame
If Afric's sons to genius are unknown,
For Banneker has prov'd they may acquire a name
As bright, as lasting, as your own.

His Gift to Jefferson

On August 19, 1791, Benjamin Banneker wrote a long letter to the Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and sent as a "present, a copy of an Almanack." He felt that Jefferson was "measurably friendly and well-disposed" attitude toward blacks, and felt that he would "readily embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions which so generally prevail with respect to us." Saying that he was "unexpectedly and unavoidably led" to develop a discourse on race and rights. Banneker made it a point to "freely and cheerfully acknowledge" that he was of the "African race." He wasn't a slave or born a slave but encouraged Jefferson to accept "the indispensable duty of those who maintain for themselves the rights of human nature," by ending the "State of tyrannical thraldom, and inhuman captivity, to which too many of my brethren are doomed."

Appealing to Jefferson's "measurably friendly and well-disposed" attitude toward blacks, Banneker presumed that he would "readily embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions which so generally prevail with respect to us." He knew that he was taking liberties by writing to Jefferson considering "the almost general prejudice and prepossession which is so prevalent in the world against those of my complexion." Banneker knew that Jefferson had published ideas about the inferiority of blacks. So, it wasn't like he was writing to an old friend. That's how brave the dude was.

Respectfully, but strongly, Banneker scolded Jefferson and other writers of the Declaration of Independence for the hypocrisy "in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the Same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves." He even quoted from the from the Declaration that the "Self-Evident" truth "that all men are created equal" compelled Jefferson and others "to wean yourselves from those narrow prejudices which you have imbibed with respect to" African Americans.

Less than two weeks later, on August 30, 1791, Jefferson sent him a polite response. He said that "such proofs as you exhibit...talents equal to those of the other colors of men." The letter doesn't comment either on his impressions of the Almanac or the issues that Banneker's letter raised. But did it make an impression?

Years later, on July 22, 1811, Jefferson wrote to his friend Joel Barlow criticizing Bishop Gregoire who wrote a book on the intelligence of Black people. In his letter to Barlow, he referred to Gregoire's attempts to prove the intelligence of Blacks and said, "the whole do not amount, in point of evidence, to what we know ourselves of Banneker." He said that while Banneker knew enough about spherical trigonometry to make almanacs, he speculated that he had help from Ellicot, who was his neighbor and friend, and "never missed an opportunity of puffing him."  He told Barlow about the "long letter from Banneker, which shows him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed." In other words, he thought Black people were ignorant and Banneker was just like them.

The Constitution continued to protect the slave trade until 1808 in the national Congress. So, the letter didn't stop slavery, but it did make an impression and showed the courage of Banneker.

The Legacy

Plagued by alcoholism and poverty in his later years, Banneker died on October 9, 1806. But, his legacy of astronomy and astronomical predictions continues to this day.

An obituary concluded "Mr. Banneker is a prominent instance to prove that a descendant of Africa is susceptible of as great mental improvement and deep knowledge into the mysteries of nature as that of any other nation."

In 2004, the United States Postal Service commemorated him on a stamp and in 2009 he was almost engraved on the District of Columbia quarter. His almanacs, which didn't stop the slave trade themselves, stand as a testimony to the intelligence and fortitude of all people regardless of race or background around the world.


What do you think of Banneker's legacy? Who's your favorite astronomer? 

If you enjoyed this, then please use the buttons below to tell your friends about this post! Follow us! Email | RSSTwitter | Facebook


Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

That was brave writing to Jefferson. He was way before his time.
I wonder where that wood clock is now?

spacerguy said...

Benjamin was one smart dude. Taking a working watch apart and putting it back together again is no small matter.

Pat Dilloway said...

That guy was awesome. Someone should make a biopic of him.

MPax said...

Wow, you did a lot of research on an intriguing man and time period. I'll bookmark this for future reference. I smell a story...

Maurice Mitchell said...

Thanks Mary, he’s a fascinating guy and well worth the time to learn about. Oddly enough there’s a lot of mythology surrounding him, so it takes work to verify everything. But the more I learned the more I wanted to know. I look forward to seeing a story! ;)


Subscribe to RSS Feed Follow me on Twitter!