October 18, 2014
“Benjamin Banneker” By Doug Washington
To educate the audience 0f input of early African Americans.
Afro American contributions have helped America in the early 1900’s.
A tobacco farmer, and amateur astronomer, Benjamin Banneker was an inspiration for his mathematical achievements. He is frequently described as the first African American man of science.
Banneker was born free in Baltimore County, Maryland, on 9 November 1731. He was the son of a freed slave from Guinea named Robert and of Mary Banneky, daughter of a formerly indentured English servant named Molly Welsh and her husband, Bannka, a slave whom she freed and who claimed to be the son of a Gold Coast tribal chief.
Inheriting the family farm at his father’s death, Banneker lived with his mother until her demise. Then living alone, he continued to grow and sell tobacco until about the age of fifty-nine, when rheumatism forced him to retire. His farm made him virtually self-sufficient, with a productive vegetable garden, thriving fruit orchards, and several hives of bees that he maintained. Banneker and his family had been among the first clients of the newly established Ellicott Store, in nearby Ellicott’s Lower Mills, and during his leisure he continued to visit it frequently, purchasing small items he required, perusing the wealth of imported merchandise, occasionally purchasing an inexpensive book for his own small library. Most of all he enjoyed the opportunity to read newspapers from other cities that the store sold and that provided him with a link to the outer world.
It was just at this time that fate sought him out for an important role to play in the nation’s history. The surveyor Andrew Ellicott had recently been appointed by President George Washington to produce a survey of selected lands on which to establish a national capital. Ellicott urgently required an assistant with some knowledge of astronomy to work in the field observation tent during the night hours. He traveled to Ellicott’s Lower Mills hoping to hire his cousin George Ellicott, Banneker’s neighbor, who was an amateur astronomer. However, his cousin, being unable to leave his own work, instead recommended Banneker, whom he felt had become sufficiently informed on the subject to fulfill the position. Banneker was hired and, overwhelmed by the opportunity; he traveled together with Andrew Ellicott to the site that was to become the national capital, arriving early in the new year of 1791.
Banneker worked in the observatory tent for more than four months, from the beginning of February until the end of April 1791. It was grueling work, for he was forced to spend the long hours of the night lying on his back in order to use an instrument called a zenith sector. His assignment was to observe through the instrument’s telescope as stars transited over the zenith, noting the exact moment of each star’s transit and recording it for Ellicott’s use when he arrived the next morning.
It was extremely tiring work for a man of Banneker’s advanced years, but despite the discomfort, he derived considerable pleasure and pride from the knowledge that he was contributing to such an important project. Also, after taking a nap during the early daylight hours, Banneker had the privilege of using Ellicott’s astronomical textbooks, which were maintained in the observatory tent.