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Benjamin Banneker

Woodcut of Benjamin Banneker
Benjamin Banneker by Unknown
Biography >> Civil Rights >> Inventors and Scientists

Benjamin Banneker was a largely self-educated astronomer, author, and scientist. This was a significant accomplishment for an African-American living during the American Revolution and the early history of the United States. Many people consider him to be the first African-American scientist.

Where did Benjamin Banneker grow up?

Benjamin Banneker was born in Baltimore County on November 9, 1731. Unlike most black children of his day in America, Benjamin was born a freeman and not enslaved. He grew up on his family's farm where he worked hard even as a child. He helped with the tobacco crops, chopped wood, and did all sorts of chores around the farm.

How was it that Benjamin was not enslaved?

Sometime in the late 1600s a young English servant girl named Molly Welsh was accused of stealing milk. She was sent to America as an indentured servant. After serving her punishment, Molly bought a small farm and a couple of enslaved workers to help her work the land. She freed the enslaved workers and eventually fell in love with one of them, a man named Bannaka.

Molly and Bannaka had four children. One of their daughters, Mary, married a freed enslaved man named Robert. In 1731, Mary and Robert had Benjamin. Because both of his parents were free, so was Benjamin.


Growing up, Benjamin had little opportunity for school. He did attend a small Quaker school for a time where he discovered an interest in science and mathematics. Even when he couldn't attend school, Benjamin borrowed all the books he could so he could continue learning. He became known in the region as an intelligent young man who could fix machines and work out math problems.

Building a Clock

Benjamin's legend continued to grow when he built his own clock. Clocks were very rare in America at the time. The story goes that Benjamin met a merchant with a watch. He made detailed drawings of the internal pieces of the watch and studied how it worked. Then, over several years, Benjamin built a larger version of the watch out of wood, constructing his own working clock.

Astronomy and Surveying

As Benjamin grew older, he began to take interest in the stars. He read books on astronomy and used math to calculate the movement of the stars. He even accurately predicted an eclipse of the sun. After the Revolutionary War, Benjamin began to use his skills as a surveyor. He got a job working on surveying and laying out Washington, D.C., the new capital city of the United States.

The Almanac

Starting in 1792, Benjamin began to publish his famous Almanac. The full title was Benjamin Banneker's Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris. It contained all sorts of information including astronomical data, weather predictions, tables, essays, commentaries, and tide tables. He published a new almanac each year for six years until 1797.

Thomas Jefferson and Slavery

Benjamin hoped to see an end to slavery. He sent letters to Thomas Jefferson asking him to consider that all men were created equal, regardless of race. He used his almanac as an example of what a free black man could accomplish. Jefferson wrote him back, and agreed that the almanac was impressive, but did nothing to put an end to slavery.

Death and Legacy

Benjamin Banneker died on October 9, 1806. Although he didn't see an end to slavery in his lifetime, his life and accomplishments were used as an example by abolitionists to demonstrate what a free black man could do.

Interesting Facts about Benjamin Banneker

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    Works Cited

    Biography >> Civil Rights >> Inventors and Scientists

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