Monday, July 4, 2016

Biography of Benjamin Banneker

The Life of Benjamin Banneker: The First African-American Man of Science by Silvio A. Bedini, revised and expanded, 1999.  This is a fascinating and enjoyable read, heavily researched, on the life and many details of the times, of this noteworthy free African-American who owned his farm, made a working wooden clock just by looking at a watch, and was able to learn complicated mathematical equations and astronomy, which would be showcased in 6 years of Almanacs; and he helped for the first couple months of the survey of Washington City.  But with all his accomplishments, many myths have appeared in books and on the web, which the author corrects. 

Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) was a natural at mathematics. He was fortunate to be born free to hardworking and astute parents... his father bought 100 acres of land for 7000 pounds of tobacco in 1737, and added his son's name with his to the deed, so there would be an unquestioned smooth transition when he died.  His maternal grandmother was a white woman ('transported' from the farm she worked in England, who worked hard, bought a farm, freed her slave, then married him) with enough education to teach Benjamin how to read and write (note his clear handwriting of his meticulous calculations on the cover and in letters) and a desire to learn. He would continue at a rural school for a few years, meeting a friend, Jacob Hall who recalled that "all his delight was to dive into his books."

When he was in his 40s, that quest for knowledge would soar with the arrival of the gifted mechanical and mathematical Ellicotts. George Ellicott (1760-1834), who at 17 started surveying the road to Baltimore, then west to Frederick, was greatly interested in astronomy, and became a devoted friend and supporter.  Ellicott lent him the tools and books that would result in the Banneker Almanacs a couple years later.  Proof to all that intelligence was not limited by race. That friendship was honored down the generations of George's family, who interviewed family and friends for an early biography to preserve the memory of this remarkable tobacco farmer turned amateur astronomer.

Although the book has 400 pages, a hundred pages are references, an annotated list of books about Banneker, documents which have information about him and an index.  It is well written and a quick read.

©2016 Patricia Bixler Reber
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