Meet Benjamin Banneker, The Black Mathematician Who Helped Design Washington D.C.
Benjamin Banneker was a highly skilled mathematician, astronomer, and scholar who also happened to be Black at a time in America when most accomplishments in those fields belonged to wealthy white men.
Washington D.C. was styled after famous European locales first by architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant, then completely by Andrew Elliot after L’Enfant was fired in 1792. Sometime after, Banneker stepped up to help complete the design, forcing even the likes of Thomas Jefferson to recognize that he had valuable input for the project.
Benjamin was the product of two generations of intermarriage between white woman and a freed African slave, and and grew up as one of only 200 free African-American people in Baltimore County. He attended a one-room, mixed-race Quaker schoolhouse and, with his doting grandmother Molly’s help, learned to read. At an early age he began to excel in mathematics and mechanics, spending time crafting experiments on his own.
In his mid-twenties he was forced by his father’s death to focus on the family farm, but even there, he put his brain to work. Their farm employed crop rotation and irrigation techniques that didn’t widely catch on in the States for many decades, and managed to grow a profitable tobacco crop that he swapped out for wheat when American soldiers needed food during the revolution.
He still found time to read and continue his education, becoming well-versed in topics that ranged the science and humanities, a man regarded as one always soaking in knowledge from watching those around him.
This 1979 journal entry is a sample of those thoughts:
“Standing at my door I heard the discharge of a gun, and in four or five seconds of time, after the discharge, the small shot came rattling about me, one or two of which struck the house; which plainly demonstrates that the velocity of sound is greater than that of a cannon bullet.”
He was a capable astronomer, but math was where he really shined – and, according to a 1912 article, what he was known for in the region. Benjamin traded problems with other mathematicians, near and far, and maintained a constant correspondence.
In 1772, a Quaker family, the Ellicotts, bought the land next door and built gristmill facilities. Fascination with the mechanisms led Banneker to visit often, and the Quaker tradition of believing in racial equality led to Benjamin and George Ellicott becoming friends.
Ellicott was also a student of astronomy, and he and Banneker shared resources, tools, and deep conversations on the topic for years. Banneker predicted a near-solar eclipse in 1789 and began writing technical treatises and building atlases of his own.
In 1789 he was thrust onto the national stage when George Elicott’s cousin, Major Andrew Ellicott, needed help with a new job – surveying land along the Potomac River that would become the nation’s new capital.
The “Georgetown Weekly Ledger” noted Banneker’s achievements and contributions, pointing out that as “an Ethiopian whose abilities as a surveyor, and an astronomer, clearly prove that Mr. Jefferson’s concluding that race of men were void of mental endowments, was without foundation.”
In a 1791 letter, Banneker challenged Jefferson’s beliefs directly, after he had completed a table of the position of the celestial bodies for publication.
“Sir, I have long been convinced, that if your love for yourselves and for those inestimable laws, which preserved to you the rights of human nature, was founded on sincerity, you could not but be solicitous that every individual … might with you equally enjoy the blessings thereof, neither could you rest satisfied [short of] their promotion from any state of degradation, to which the unjustifiable cruelty and barbarism of men may have reduced them.
Sir, I freely and cheerfully acknowledge that I am of the African race … and it is under a sense of the most profound gratitude to the supreme ruler of the Universe, that I now confess to you, that I am not under the state of tyrannical thraldom, and inhuman captivity to which many of my brethren are doomed, but that I have abundantly tasted of the fruition of those blessings, which proceed from that free and unequalled liberty, with which you are favored, and which, I hope you will willingly allow, you have received from the immediate hand of that being … [and] that the present freedom and tranquility which you enjoy, you have mercifully received, and that it is the peculiar blessing of heaven.”
Jefferson responded, though probably not exactly as Banneker would have hoped:
“SIR, I THANK you, sincerely, for your letter of the 19th instant, and for the Almanac it contained. No body wishes more than I do, to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men ; and that the appearance of the want of them, is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America. I can add with truth, that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced, for raising the condition, both of their body and mind, to what it ought to be, as far as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances, which cannot be neglected, will admit.
I have taken the liberty of sending your Almanac to Monsieur de Condozett, Secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, and Member of the Philanthropic Society, because I considered it as a document, to which your whole color had a right for their justification, against the doubts which have been entertained of them.
I am with great esteem, Sir, Your most obedient Humble Servant,
Banneker never shied away from defending the others in his race from the assumptions and cruelty that resulted from those assumptions in America.
He appears to have been the pioneer in the movement in this part of the world, toward the improvement of his race; at a period of our history when the negro occupied almost the lowest possible grade in the scale of human beings, Banneker had struck out for himself a course, hitherto untravelled by men of his class, and had already earned a respectable position amongst men of science.
All records indicate that whatever discrimination Banneker faced during his life, he never wavered in the knowledge that his intelligence had nothing to do with the color of his skin.
“His equilibrium was seldom disturbed by the petty jealousies and inequalities of temper of the ignorant people,”A Sketch of the Life of Benjamin Banneker notes, “with whom his situation obliged him frequently to come in contact.”
Benjamin Ellicott, who knew him personally, remembered him similarly in a letter:
Although his mode of life was regular and extremely retired, living alone, having never married,–cooking his own victuals and washing his own clothes, and scarcely ever being absent from home, yet there was nothing misanthropic in his character … [He was known as] kind, generous, hospitable, humane, dignified and pleasant, abounding in information on all the various subjects and incidents of the day; very modest and unassuming, and delighting in society at his own home.
A variety of parks, schools, awards, streets, businesses, and other facilities in Maryland and Washington D.C. bear his name, and people who want to learn more about the early scholar can do so at the Benjamin Banneker Park and Memorial (in D.C.) or the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum (in Maryland).
If he could visit one place named for him today, though, he might choose Maryland’s Banneker Planetarium, where he could once again muse about those celestial bodies hanging in the heavens.