The Unknown Benjamin

Do you know anything about Bejamin Banneker? Ever heard his name? I recently taught a class about some of the men and women that founded our great country. I used “Drive Thru History America” as a basis for the class. The curriculum covers eight characters from early American history. One of the interesting men that I learned about was this (other) Benjamin. Here is a short list of his accomplishments…

  1. For many years Benjamin Banneker was referred to as “the first Negro Man of Science”. One time Benjamin borrowed his neighbors watch. He disassembled it and made sketches of all the parts inside. The watch was returned to his neighbors in perfect condition. They couldn’t even tell that it was taken apart. Then, Benjamin carved out enlarged replicas of the parts inside. He made his own (much bigger) watch. It worked for over 50 years.
  2. He challenged Thomas Jefferson in a letter with the following words, “Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, 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.”
  3. Banneker began his solo study of astronomy at age 58. He was able to make the calculations to predict solar and lunar eclipses and to compile an ephemeris for the Benjamin Banneker’s Almanac, which an anti-slavery society published from 1792 through 1797. He became known as the Sable Astronomer.
  4. Even though he lived in a time when it wasn’t easy for African-Americans to be living, his grandmother taught Benjamin to read and write. He enjoyed mathematics and solving problems. After exhausting her teaching skills, he was sent to one of the first integrated schools. Eventually, he taught himself about astronomy and advanced mathematics. He would borrow books from his neighbors and friends. His close friends, the Ellicot brothers, lent him most of their books.
  5. Banneker employed his knowledge of astronomy and mathematics to help plan the city of Washington, D.C. In February 1791 United States president George Washington commissioned Ellicott and French engineer Pierre L’Enfant to help plan the construction of the nation’s capital on an area of land 25 sq km (10 sq mi) in Virginia and Maryland. Ellicott invited Banneker to be his assistant.

These are just a few of this man’s accomplishments. He is a true American hero, a Christian, and descendant of african slaves. I wonder why he is not celebrated the way that Martin Luther King is celebrated? Benjamin was not a politician, not a preacher, but he was an incredibly influential African-American who actually did something with his life.

-Jim

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