The Life of Benjamin Banneker, The First African-American Man of Science, Second Edition

The Maryland Historical Society recently issued a revised edition of their biography of Benjamin Banneker, written by noted historian and author Silvio Bedini. Bedini wrote this book when he was a historian with the Smithsonian Institution. Originally published in 1972, and subsequently out of print for many years, The Life of Benjamin Banneker is the definitive study on the life of the Maryland farmer, surveyor, and scientist who played an important part in the establishment of the nation's capital. It is a well written, comprehensive study of the man and an interesting examination of the times.

Benjamin Banneker, born in 1731, was the son of a free black farmer in rural Maryland. The family lived on the farm and grew tobacco and vegetables for market. They made a comfortable and secure if not prosperous living. His parents appreciated learning and sent him to a local Quaker school which he attended with the white children of the area. According to Bedini, the part of Baltimore County where the Bannekers lived was out of the mainstream of the colonial South, and as result had a much more tolerant attitude than other slave states. Even though slavery and the associated racism was common in the state, free black land owning families such as the Bannekers were largely left alone. Bedini speculates that while Banneker was most certainly aware of the horrors of slavery, he may have never seen incidents of brutality in his own area.

The Banneker family did their business at a nearby store owned by the Ellicotts, a prominent Quaker family. It was there that Benjamin met and made friends with the family that would greatly influence his life. George Ellicott, an amateur astronomer, recognized Banneker's intelligence and encouraged him in his intellectual interests. He lent him books on astronomy to study and loaned him furnishings for his house to make studying easier. Banneker embraced his astronomical studies with such enthusiasm that he was soon making his own calculations and predicting the position of heavenly bodies. George Ellicott was so impressed with Banneker's accomplishments, that several years later, when his cousin Andrew Ellicott asked him to be an astronomer on a large survey project, George suggested that Andrew hire Benjamin Banneker instead.

At this time in 1791, there was a severe shortage of mathematicians in the country. Andrew Ellicott wrote Thomas Jefferson to discuss the hiring of Banneker, which may have been a sensitive subject to the Southerners involved, but Jefferson approved the hiring. One must always be careful when interpreting social values of the past by today's standards, but I cannot help but wonder how Jefferson, a slave holder, felt about having a free black man of demonstrated intelligence and ability working on such a key component of the foundation of the nation's capital. Banneker's friends and family were as pleased with the appointment as he was. His sister made him new clothes to wear on the survey so he wouldn't have to wear his worn farmer's clothing when he met national leaders. In high spirits, Banneker left his farm in the care of relatives and traveled to Washington. The Ellicotts, it seems, preferred to hire their own relatives, whenever possible, to work on their projects. Indeed, when Banneker was eventually dismissed from the survey, it was to make way for Andrew Ellicott's brother, not because the work was done.

By most accounts, Banneker's participation on the survey was a success. Now 60 years old, he worked as an astronomer in the observation tent, where he also slept. The story of the design and survey of Washington is full of struggle and antagonism. Pierre L'Enfant and Andrew Ellicott were managers of separate parts of the work, design and survey. Each reported to the project's commissioners, but their working relationships with the commissioners were uniformly poor. L'Enfant was fired and Ellicott quit, but later returned at the request of George Washington. Eventually he completed the design.

Banneker Assisted Ellicott
Banneker was Ellicott's assistant and perhaps this is the source of the myth that Banneker designed the layout of the streets of Washington. Some writers argue that there is very little documentation that shows that Banneker was even present. Bedini provides the evidence that shows his participation and explains why the documentation is so sparse—the commissioners seized Ellicott's papers during one of the frequent disputes and did not return them all. These facts and more come to light in the book, including Banneker's later life and success in calculating, writing and publishing an almanac which was well received in the country.

The story of the survey of Washington is relentlessly fascinating in all of its aspects. The life of Benjamin Banneker is interesting and even inspirational to many of us self-taught surveyors who have also spent many evenings at the kitchen table with borrowed books. The information about life and culture in the colonial South is absorbing as well. But what I like most about the book is Bedini's open-eyed honesty in relating the entire tale. Some writers, in an effort to build up their hero, claim that Banneker was the designer of Washington. Other writers have asserted that Banneker's role in the survey is a myth without documentation. Neither group is correct. Bedini does a professional job of sorting out the truth from the falsehoods. He tells the whole story, from Banneker's African royal ancestors to the archeological excavation of the Bannekers' house site that was done in the 1980s. Readers will enjoy this well-written and well-illustrated book.

Patrick Toscano is the City Surveyor for New Britain, Connecticut, and the Book Review Editor for the Magazine.

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