Banneker's grandmother Molly was a white servant milkmaid on a cattle farm in England. She was milking a cow when the cow kicked over a pail of milk and her employer accused her of stealing. During the 1600 and 1700's in England stealing was subject to death, but when convicted you could "call for the book," this meant that you would read out of a book and have the sentence reduced. Molly was able to do this, saving her life. She was sentenced to go to Maryland and be a servant. The largest industry at this time was farming, and consequently farmers needed to acquire hands for labor.
In 1690 Molly was freed and granted 50 acres of land. She started a farm and purchased two young male slaves. The first male worked efficiently but he was reluctant. He told her that he was a Prince from Africa named Bannka. She soon convinced him to work. She was against slavery and after a few years granted them freedom. Later fallling in love with Bannka and married in 1696. She and Bannka (later called Banneky) had children, one of which was named Mary.
Mary married a freed slave named Robert. They had a son Benjamin, born November 9, 1731. The family bought a farm. Molly visited them frequently and taught young Benjamin how to read using the bible. He learned quickly. Benjamin attended a Quaker schoolmaster's class. Unfortunately, Banneker had to stop going to school once he was old enough to help on the farm.
Benjamin always had a knack for mechanics and borrowed a pocket watch. The way the clock worked captivated him. He decided to make a clock out of wood. He had amazing skill as an observer and made drawings and calculations. First he drew diagrams, then converted them into wood parts. Finally, after months of work, the time piece was completed in 1753. It was made completely of wood, except for a few parts. Word spread quickly and the Banneker name became well known as the maker of an extraordinary time piece. He was only 22 at the time.
(Fig. 2) A wooden clock like Banneker's
When Benjamin was 28 on July 14, 1759 his father died. Now he owned the farm and had little time for his studies. His mother died in 1775. In the following years Banneker was alone, a free man with restricted activities because of color.
The Ellicotts moved to town with the construction of the mills in 1774 and became friends with Banneker. They inspired Banneker's interest in astronomy and encouraged him to make an almanac. George Ellicott lent Banneker tools for astronomy.
After gaining experience with the instruments and knowledge of the stars, Banneker attempted to predict an eclipse. He then sent the prediction to George Ellicott. George found it amazing that Banneker learned all this on his own. The only error was a minor one on the drawing and George quickly fixed it and sent it back.
Banneker had the idea to make an almanac. He finished his almanac for 1791 and hurried to get it published. He went to a publisher named Hayes. The publisher told him that he would decide and made him wait. After a long wait, the publisher said no. As it turned out the almanac would be critical to have in the future. This almanac was sent to Thomas Jefferson and proved that African Americans were equal to "white" people.
Northern states in the colonies such as Philadelphia were trying to abolish slavery and stop the slave trade. Many states in the southern regions wanted to revive the trade to get money. The northern states eventually won.
In 1791 Banneker began to survey the federal city, which was to be the capital of the colonies and later Washington D.C. The site and surveyors were chosen by George Washington. Major Andrew Ellicott was appointed surveyor and needed an assistant. He quickly wrote a letter to Washington informing him of his selection, Benjamin Banneker.
Banneker had to assist Ellicott in the observatory tent and make observations with him on the field. The most important job undertaken by Banneker was the job to keep the timepiece accurate. It was crucial to their observations.
This surveying job helped Banneker acquire experience with astronomical tools. Whenever he could manage, he would work on his next almanac. L'Enfant, a French man, was to make drawings of the grounds to be used for the federal city and for the government buildings. He also had to note roads, streams and other topographical features. Banneker assisted him in these areas. Conflict between Washington and L'Enfant caused Washington to write for L'Enfant's dismissal from the project. L'Enfant got angry and on his leave he took his work with him. Banneker reconstructed all of L'Enfant's work from memory and almost with exact likeness.
Banneker immediately returned to his farm and continued with his almanac. Banneker found two publishers that were interested. Elias Ellicott helped Banneker with his work, because he knew it would be helpful in the antislavery movement. In many debates about antislavery Banneker and his almanac were the topics. He had proven the mental capabilities of the African American.
Late in that year the almanac for 1792 was published. Finally Banneker had accomplished his dream. On the morning of October 9, 1806 he went for a walk to observe the day but after walking for a little he felt ill and immediately returned to his home to lay down on his bed. In a few moments he was dead. Banneker will always be remembered as a man of great prestige and of genius.