November 9, 1731 – Birthdate of Benjamin Banneker

On this day in history, Benjamin Banneker was born in Baltimore County, Maryland to his mother Mary, a free black, and his father Robert, a freed slave from Guinea. Banneker became a self-taught mathematician, astronomer, surveyor, farmer, inventor, author, and political activist.

Banneker published a six-year series of almanacs which were printed and sold in six cities in four states for the years 1792 through 1797: Baltimore; Philadelphia; Wilmington, Delaware; Alexandria, Virginia; Petersburg, Virginia; and Richmond, Virginia.

Banneker expressed his views on racial equality in documents that he placed within his almanacs. A book for young readers about Banneker conveys the essence of his thoughts and of his attempts to persuade the leadership of the young country about the iniquity of slavery.


As the authors explain in a forward, in 1791 Banneker wrote a letter to then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson attacking the institution of slavery and calling Jefferson a hypocrite. (The ostensible purpose of the letter was to enclose a copy of the almanac Banneker wrote.) (You can read the full text of his letter here.)

As the authors quote from the letter, Banneker argued:

…Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.”

It is ironic that if Banneker were white, Jefferson would have sought him out as an intellectual soul mate. Many of Banneker’s interests mirrored those of Jefferson. Banneker even built a wooden clock by duplicating the gears of a borrowed pocket watch; Jefferson loved that kind of thing.

Jefferson responded to Banneker, claiming:

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 & mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecillity of their present existence, and other circumstance which cannot be neglected, will admit.”

[Unless, of course, it meant having to give up his own slaves. Jefferson continued to believe in the moral and social superiority of whites over blacks, and personally owned and sold upwards of 700 slaves throughout his life.]

Washington and Jefferson did, however, hire Banneker to help survey Washington, D.C. for the new nation’s capital.

But, as the Facing History and Ourselves Project points out:

Jefferson, it seems, saw Banneker’s intelligence as an exception among African-Americans, rather than evidence that Jefferson’s perceptions about race might be fundamentally flawed. Sadly, three years after Banneker’s death in 1806, Jefferson wrote to Joel Barlow, an American poet and politician, disparaging the by-then well known Banneker and arguing that he could not have made the calculations contained in the almanac without assistance. With time, he had convinced himself that the “proofs” of ability he had once seen in the black author could not be real.”

The striking and powerful illustrations by Brian Pinkney in this book were prepared as scratchboard rendering, hand-colored with oil paint.


Discussion: The story of Benjamin Banneker is truly inspirational, and Banneker is an important figure in both science and history about whom many are uninformed. However, I don’t think it was necessarily wise to use actual quotes from the correspondence of Banneker and Jefferson in a book intended for ages 5-10. The gist of the letters could have been summarized in simpler syntax to much greater effect. On the other hand, adjusting the suggested age range upward would fix the problem.

Rating: 3.5/5

Published by Gulliver Books, an imprint of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1998



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