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Benjamin Banneker: Quotes & Contributions

Instructor: Grace Pisano

Grace has taught high school history in several states with a master's degree in teaching.

Benjamin Banneker was a noteworthy African-American author and scientist in the 1700s. In this lesson, learn about his contributions and famous writings.

A Man of Many Accomplishments

Author, scientist, astronomer, mathematician, clock-maker, surveyor, etc. The list of titles and accomplishments of Benjamin Banneker is impressive for any person! However, if you consider that Banneker received minimal formal education and lived in a time where his race put limits on things he legally could and could not do, you cannot help but be impressed and wonder how he accomplished these things.

Let's spend some time talking about who Banneker was and what his greatest contributions were. Then, we'll look to his writings to try and get a glimpse of how his brain worked.

Who was Benjamin Banneker?

Benjamin Banneker, 1731 - 1806

Banneker was a free African-American born in Maryland in 1731. Banneker's father was a former slave and his mother was the daughter of a former indentured servant. Banneker never experienced slavery himself, since his parents were both free. However, this does not mean he had the same rights and freedoms of white people in the early eighteenth century. Banneker attended a Quaker school briefly, but was primarily self-taught.

Contributions

Banneker had many contributions and notable achievements. These started on his family's farm, where he designed and created an irrigation system to water the family crops. While still young, Banneker also created a clock that is legendary for keeping accurate time for several decades, until it burned down in a fire after his death. Because of his reputation, Banneker was asked to help survey and zone land for Washington D.C. in 1791.

Banneker Almanacs were published yearly from 1792 until 1797

Banneker's interest in astronomy allowed him to accurately predict eclipses. This lead to his most noteworthy contribution--Banneker Almanacs. From 1792 - 1797, Banneker wrote and published an almanac each year. These almanacs were used by farmers and fishermen to predict tides, eclipses and astrological phenomena. They also included opinion writings and medical information.

These contributions are even more exceptional when considering that Banneker was self-educated and faced extreme adversity because of his race. Outside of these contributions, Banneker is also remembered for his contribution in advocating for the rights of other African-Americans, most famously in his letter to the Secretary of State in 1791, Thomas Jefferson.

Quotes

Banneker wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson to disprove the claim that African-Americans were inferior intellectually and to persuade Jefferson that they should be given equal rights and treatment under the law. Banneker knew he was taking a risk writing the letter because he was black and Jefferson was a high-ranking white official. He felt that what he had to say was so important that it was worth the risk.

Banneker starts his letter by stating that it is the ''indispensable duty'' of those who have rights ''to extend their power and influence to every part of the human race,'' especially to those who are under ''burthen or oppression.'' Banneker famously draws the comparison to America's recent Revolutionary War against the British, saying that when the colonies were under British rule, Jefferson and other leaders ''clearly saw into the injustice of a State of Slavery'' and ''had just apprehensions of the horrors of its condition.'' He goes on to say that ''although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind'' to give man ''these rights and privileges,'' politicians are ''found guilty of the most criminal act'' by instituting ''groaning captivity and cruel oppression'' on African-Americans. In this letter, Banneker included a copy of his almanac, disproving the common misconception of the time that the African-American race did not have the same intellectual capabilities of the white race.

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