Benjamin Banneker, First Black American Intellectual: Part 1, Measuring the Past

The box was heavy, both because the man inside was large and because his passing made his bearers heavy of heart. Old Benjamin was a good neighbor, always one to help and share advice. He gave to everybody, though most of those standing around the muddy grave today were dark-skinned as he was. A good man and a religious one–he loved his Bible, as the preacher noted. “A little too much,” thought 12-year-old Elijah, sighing to hear yet another homily from the Old Testament. He scratched another circle in the mud with his toe, as Ben had taught him, a line equidistant around a center point. His eye wandered again over the tops of the trees in the gray October morning, watching the weak sun trying to peer through the clouds. Or, was that a glow? Then, he smelled the smoke.

Banneker’s statue at the Smithsonian Museum of African American History, photo by Frank Schulenberg.

Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) was a mathematical genius, a polymath some would say, who taught himself astronomy and trigonometry and put them to work on his behalf. He was a surveyor who provided data for the layout of Washington D.C. He was a farmer who understood crop rotations and season fluctuations. He published six years of almanacs which were widely distributed across the mid-Atlantic states. He built his own clock simply from looking at the parts of a borrowed watch. And Benjamin Banneker was Black. He told Thomas Jefferson where to get off; Jefferson, apparently, didn’t like it.

Banneker’s story is so remarkable–so American in its expression of the pioneering spirit and search for freedom–that it’s going to take two posts to tell it. The more I started peeling the onion, the more there was to find. His family story is fascinating in its own right. There is also a mythology that has cropped up around him, where exaggerations have obscured the truth, and created a backwash of clarifications and reductions.

Then, there is the funeral. On the day he was buried, Banneker’s cabin with all his belongings was burned to the ground. Hard enough, for an intellectual Black man in 1790 to gain celebrity for his activities. Much harder, if most of the evidence is destroyed.

Tip of the Iceberg

I stumbled across Banneker looking for a subject for Black History month that hadn’t been done to death. I googled “Black mathematicians” and was chagrined that this was a name I did not know. What Banneker achieved was amazing, given how little opportunity he had. By way of doing a “little” background reading, I skimmed through Rachel Jamison Webster’s biography, Eleven Generations of an American Family. It turned out to be long, episodic, and incredibly absorbing.

Webster is a distant relative of Banneker’s and her exploration of his story effectively combines with her own journey to discover her past. It turns out that Webster’s book was hailed as a “Best Book” of 2023, meaning it’s very recent and very good. What I am about to write is the tip of the iceberg to Banneker’s amazing story. Like Webster, I also found myself visualizing the experience, filling in the gaps that history had obscured. Reader beware, there will be poetic license taken!

Despite the chill in the October air, the fire burned hot. Elijah put out his hand; still too strong to get close and see what was left. Whiskey, somebody said. The logs would have taken a while to flame without it. Ben had been known to partake, despite his religious fervor. But if there were whiskey bottles, Old Benjamin’s cabin had also been full of small things, delicate instruments of wood and metal. And books. Three different Bibles–someone was always giving him Bibles. Plenty of kindling. “Lord, who would do such a thing?” muttered Uncle Zachariah behind him. “Man not even buried yet.” But they both knew. Benjamin was smarter than other folks and fond of telling them what he thought. Time was, when the poor whites and poor blacks worked side by side, both chained to the law that said they were owned. But not any more. Ben liked his privacy, but when he got the chance, he was fond of preaching, especially about freedom in this new country. Not everybody liked to hear about it.

Seven Years for a Bucket of Milk

Banneker was born a free Black man to a family who owned a small farm–originally tobacco, then wheat–in Maryland, bought in the late 17th century. His mother and grandmother had been indentured servants; his father and grandfather, slaves kidnapped from Africa. So the first question is: How did Benjamin come to be an educated, free Black man?

Portrait of Molly Bannaky, Benjamin’s grandmother, forced to migrate to America. Artwork by Chris Oentpiet.

Banneker’s grandmother provides the best starting point. Mary Walsh, called Molly, was sent to America as an indentured servant. She was accused of stealing milk from a cow that she was tending. Webster, whose research is rich in detail, points out that Molly was a teenage girl, which likely made her prey to the groping hands of the man who employed her. If she resisted him, he may have accused her of theft. Rather than be hanged, she chose indentured servitude and was bundled on to a ship and sent to the colonies.

Molly worked for seven years, hard brutal harvesting of tobacco, though she served out her contract. After she was freed, she purchased her own farm. But she needed inexpensive labor to work it, so she purchased slave labor, two African men. As it turns out, one of them, Bana’ka, was a Wolof prince, kidnapped from the Senegambian empire.

Molly looked across the scrub and mud that she had just purchased. She was determined to turn this into something better, determined not to go back into servitude or be at the mercy of this or that master. She couldn’t work it on her own, though, and she had so little money. It would need strong muscles to break through that soil. She could marry one of the landowners, but then it would be his property, and not hers. There was only one way: buy the muscles as she had been bought. But if she was a moderate mistress to her slaves, they would not think of her badly. If they all worked hard, maybe they could buy their freedom and that would be a kindness.

Scholars have speculated at the source for Banneker’s astronomical knowledge. One possibility may have been his African ancestors.

West African medieval empires, from Washington Post’s “40 more maps that explain the world”

Timbuktu, the Diamond of West Africa

The empires of West Africa–Senegal, Gambia, Mali–were known for their advanced civilization and trading. African tribes are often portrayed as primitive in comparison to the 16th century colonizers, but they were not necessarily so. Bana’ka’s tribes may have had sophisticated astronomical knowledge. For example, his Dogon ancestors had identified Sirius as a double-star system before there were telescopes. Unfortunately, some of the encyclopedia discussion of Dogon knowledge about the timing of the orbits of Sirius A and B is peppered with descriptions of mermaids, extraterrestrial beings, and demigods. It’s quite possible that their religious beliefs intermingled with their knowledge of measurements of the skies. (Christianity is no stranger to that.) Such stories often overshadow the more significant piece of data, which is that people without telescopes could generate complex understanding of celestial bodies.

Gaps in tribal scientific knowledge could also have been filled in by Muslim traders. Islam–with its sophisticated science and math–had spread across North Africa by the ninth century, and it migrated south, too. Muslim merchants in search of the rich resources of Mali traversed the deserts, perhaps trading knowledge and books for salt and gold. Muslim mathematicians and astronomers had advanced algebra and navigation far beyond what Europe had at the time. Islam had the House of Wisdom. Africa had Timbuktu.

Timbuktu, World Heritage Site, photo from face2faceAfrica.

It’s possible that Bana’ka, as a potential future king of the Wolof tribe, might have been formally educated with books. Biographers don’t say so, but the Muslim traders had a robust market in books. Timbuktu had libraries. Bana’ka’s education probably included stories about the stars told around the fire pit, as historians have envisioned, but it might also have included formal education with books.

Elijah kicked a hard lump in the ash. It was too charred to make out words, and they were probably in Latin anyway. Old Ben was always saying things in Latin or German or other foreign tongues. He said you could read anything if you had enough time to figure it out. There had been two shelves with all manner of titles, not to mention of all of Ben’s journals. “Ahh,” he heard a wail behind him as Auntie Sarah Lett arrived and saw the clumps of black . “Not the books!”

Escaping the American Nightmare

Molly did free Bana’ka and married him. Their daughter was named Mary and also indentured. Had her mother married a white man, Mary would have been free. Because Molly married Bana’ka, her children became indentured until they were 31. Webster found court records of Mary Bannaky petitioning for her children’s freedom. Not only was Mary put into forced servitude, but her children would be as well. Indentured servitude was, like slavery, inherited. Forget the American Dream; this was an American Nightmare of systemic poverty.

Fortunately, the court accepted Mary’s petition. They freed Mary’s three children, offspring of marriage to a man named Lett, now gone. The Lett descendants were the ones who preserved the oral histories of Molly, Bana’ka, and others to be passed down through the generations. Otherwise, the records are sketchy. Benjamin himself never married or had children.

With her own and her children’s freedom secured, Mary Bannaky married another African man. Robert had been enslaved to a pious Anglican and, in exchange for baptism, was granted his freedom. Robert and Mary married and, in 1731, Benjamin Banneker was born.

A geometry problem in Banneker’s notebooks. From

What is the length of a side of an equilateral triangle inside a circle with a diameter of 200? (The answer is 173.2. Can you figure it out?)

Grandmother Molly read to young Benjamin from the Bible until he could read to her. His intellect must have been startling because his parents paid for him to attend a Quaker school, not close to home. The Quakers were open-minded teachers, often abolitionist. Benjamin’s teacher continued with him through advanced mathematics. He learned about geometry; one journal that escaped the fire shows him solving a problem of “inscribed equilateral triangles.”

Much has been made about Benjamin being “self-taught” in science and math, but there were only a handful of universities or places of advanced study in the colonies by 1750. The white aristocrats (Adams, Jefferson, etc.) who attended those schools were expected to learn most of what they knew from reading, before, during, and after university. Everyone was, to a degree, self-taught. Certainly, no one Black or among the working class attended such places. Even a free Black man who grasped advanced algebra (double position, the rule of three) would have ended his studies as a teenager, and no one would have found it surprising. Benjamin Banneker would have known that it was his only avenue. Besides, knowledge is addictive.

The Truth about the Clock

Benjamin Banneker did not build America’s first clock, even though the Internet now says that he did. Banneker built a clock. Clocks were rare in the colonies and often imported, but there were other clockmakers by the early 1700s. For instance, David Rittenhouse, who fashioned a famous clock for Drexel university was born to Pennsylvania farmers in 1732. Like Banneker, young David surprised his family by carving equations onto the fence posts around the farm. (Paper was expensive…) Rittenhouse became a surveyor and astronomer–not unlike Banneker–but he made his living as a clockmaker. However, Rittenhouse’s family had a lot of acreage and money. Banneker’s family did not.

The oral history passed down is that Banneker’s neighbor let him borrow a pocket watch. Benjamin took it apart, which may have shocked anyone who saw the extremely valuable instrument with its tiny parts spread out on the table. Watches and clocks worked with tiny springs and gears whose induced motion (from the winding) crept along a carefully measured track. Distance, rate, time.

Inner working of a Thomas Harland clock from colonial U.S. Photo from metmain-image.

Banneker drew pictures of the pieces from the watch (and apparently put it back together and returned it, working–phew!) He then carved a larger version out of cured hardwood. It was a strike clock, meaning it had two sets of moving pieces, one set to keep time and another to motion a bell or sound.

His family had taught him to keep track of the seasons, both because the crops demanded it and because his ancestors had studied the stars. Benjamin would have understood the rotations of nature, the idea that things turned and kept time. It’s probably what fascinated him about the watch. With weights and carefully constructed gears, an object could measure with precision. Benjamin Banneker’s clock kept fairly accurate time for most of his life, from the time he fashioned it at age 22 until his death. People who saw it would have marveled at it as a technological achievement. It brought him a certain kind of celebrity and confirmed his assumptions about the intersection of math and the real world, that time could be measured.

It was useful information that everyone should know, the movements of the seasons, the tides, and the stars. He could write that up. Those books were very popular. They were called almanacs.

Elijah bent down and scooped up a handful of ash not yet coated with mist, letting the pale dust coat his dark fingers. Squatting down, he let the ash drift away, then spotted a point sticking out of the rubble. It was sharp at one end, with a curved portion in the middle. This was no log, Elijah knew. This was the hour hand. All that was left from the clock that had kept such good time for all those years. All wood, now all gone. The clock had started everything. Maybe it was best that it was now gone with its maker

To be Continued in Part 2: Benjamin’s Abolitionist Almanacs

4 Replies to “Benjamin Banneker, First Black American Intellectual: Part 1, Measuring the Past”

  1. Thank you, Maria. Of course you would find a mathematician! 🙂
    I recently watched a one man play about a family of indentured and freed slaves who were kept in servitude, even decades after the court agreed they and subsequent generations were free, and several generations should not have even been indentured.
    Sometimes I don’t know how America can hold her head up.

    1. The list of Black athletes, artists, and musicians have been already so well picked over. The mathematicians have been under served! It shocks me, too, to be This Old and still find out new shenanigans–well, horrors really–that were perpetrated. But shining a light is a good thing, I hope. Thanks for the comment.

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