Benjamin Banneker, First Black American Intellectual: Part 2, Benjamin’s Abolitionist Almanac

Herein shall we continue the story of Benjamin Banneker, surveyor, farmer, astronomer, polymath, and noted abolitionist. Be sure to read Part One, the history of Banneker’s family and his acquisition of mathematical knowledge.

Benjamin Banneker was nearly sixty when he hit upon the idea of publishing an almanac of natural information. As a farmer, he had kept copious notes, documenting the practices of bees and noting the 17-year cycle of cicadas. Unmarried, he worked his land mostly alone, though he still chatted with his neighbor, George Ellicott. One day, Ellicott brought over a telescope. It turned Banneker’s last two decades into a whirlwind of calculation, publication, and provocation. It would make him famous again for a brief time. He would also poke the hornet’s nest.

“Do you have an answer, Ben?” the schoolmaster’s voice barked out. Startled, Ben looked up and scanned the class, faces turned to stare and giggle. “What is 23 by 7?” Without any calculation, Ben replied, “14 in the tens place and 21 which is 161.” Still, he had not been paying attention. The master picked up the book that had absorbed his young pupil, Newton’s Principia. “I’m sorry, sir,” Ben said. “I forgot to ask if I could…” The master squinted but tried to suppress a grin. “Practicing your Latin?” “Yes, sir. Perhaps you could explain this part … ‘precession of the equinoxes…'”

Alone with a Telescope

In 1788, Benjamin at 57 had continued to eke out a small harvest of apples and wheat, even as the Ellicott Mills and other larger farms had grown around him. His minor celebrity status as a clock maker had died down a bit, although the clock still kept time and the occasional passerby poked his head in to gawk. The Revolution had come and gone. The War had come and gone, too.

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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.

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Lucy Harris: A Whole Lot of Firsts

Center Harris, helping Delta State win its 1st of 3 titles. Photo from The New York Times.

Author’s Note: Ha! Now add Oscar winner to the resume…hers, the director’s, Steph Curry’s, everybody involved! I say let’s have more Oscar-winning documentaries about women–woohoo!

Lucy Harris died about a month ago, but the “Queen of Basketball” seemed the perfect subject to cap off Black History Month, with a tribute to her remarkable career. She won three national championships before NCAA women’s basketball became the commercial juggernaut it is today; she excelled in the Olympics in the days before Team USA dominated women’s Olympic basketball as it does today; she competed when she was the only Black face on the team, on the court, or practically in the building.

Whenever someone is the first, it always means more than a note in a record. There are stories under the stories.

Tall Family, Tall Dreams

Harris is the subject of a delightful but unfortunately short biopic making the rounds on ESPN, produced by Shaquille O’Neal. Ben Proudfoot’s film is narrated by Ms. Harris, who talks about her basketball days with a smile.

Harris was the 10th of 11 children, born to sharecroppers in the deep South of the Mississippi delta. Her idols as a teenager were the basketball heroes of the late 1960s: Wilt Chamberlain, Bill Russell, and especially Oscar Robertson, her favorite. She spoke of sneaking TV after light’s out–I had one of those 9-inch sets myself–so the family was not dirt poor, even with so many mouths to feed. By the time Lucy was old enough to watch basketball under the blankets, her siblings may have been working as well as babysitting her.

All her elder brothers and one sister played basketball at Amanda Elzy High School, where they all went to school. They were coached by Conway Stewart, whose team went to multiple state championships, winning one with Harris’ older brother. The year that Harris came along, the team won every game until its last, missing the opportunity to go to state her first year. They fixed that the next year. She broke the school record, scoring 46 points in one game, and captaining the team back to the state championships.

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