ChickenBones: A Journal

for Literary & Artistic African-American Themes



 Banneker’s genius came to light in many ways. Banneker took apart a pocket watch and, after studying the works, in 1753 made a wooden clock, which ran well for at least twenty years. 



Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor, Astronomer, Publisher, Patriot

By Charles A. Cerami /  New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2002

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Foiling the Arsonists

A review by Winfield Swanson


To the ten books he has already written, Charles Cerami, a former editor of Kiplinger Washington Publications and an economist, now adds his masterful biography of Benjamin Banneker (1731-1804). Cerami has gleaned the facts of Banneker’s life from a scant historical record consisting of local archives, correspondence, a few journals, reminiscences, and an earlier biography (Shirley Graham’s 1949 Your Most Humble Servant).  

He has interwoven his tale with enough historical information as well as social and political context for the reader to readily understand the relative influence of these factors on Banneker’s life along with the magnitude of his achievements.  These facets include George Washington’s political genius and challenges; race and racism in the eighteenth century; astronomy; the building of America’s capital city; and a number of Banneker’s more famous contemporaries.  The book contains eighteen chapters and ends with two appendixes–one on Banneker’s probable Dogon ancestors in Africa and one on Benjamin Franklin and his almanac—source notes for each chapter, a bibliography, and an index.

Banneker’s grandmother, Molly Welsh, was a dairy maid in England accused of stealing a pail of milk she had accidentally spilled. She could have been executed for the presumed crime, but was instead transported to the North American colonies.  In 1683, she wound up in Annapolis, Maryland, indentured for seven years to an honorable tobacco farmer who released her with fifty acres of arable land near Elkridge, Maryland and a small amount of cash, which she used to purchase two slaves.  One turned out to be of royal heritage, perhaps from the Dogon people, who called himself Banneka. After several years, when the three had established a small farm, Mary freed Banneka and married him.  A devoted couple, they eventually had four daughters, but Banneka died before he was fifty. 

Their daughter Mary either married a slave and freed him, or married a former slave. Regardless, this man accepted the name Robert Banneky, and on November 9, 1731, Benjamin Banneker was born. Benjamin’s intellect was recognized from the beginning and by the age of six he was helping neighboring farmers with their accounts.

Methodical and analytical, he kept a journal for most of his life, recording his thoughts, ideas, and dreams, in addition to practical farming information.  He analyzed farming and broke it into thirty-six distinct steps; not surprisingly, the Banneker farm was known for its fine crops.

Between 1759 and the early 1770s, Banneker underwent some life-altering change that caused him to stop writing, except for the recording of his dreams. An early biographer assigned the cause to a disappointed love affair; however, Cerami’s theory, although less romantic, seems more likely: though free, Banneker recognized the limitations of his possibilities as an uneducated black farmer living in a backwater, rural slave society. A turning point came, however, when he met the Ellicotts.

In 1772, the Ellicotts, a well-to-do Quaker family of farmers who had never owned slaves, moved to the Elkridge area and soon began building millworks and fitting them out with machinery.  Fascinated, Banneker spent more and more time watching the progress. Eventually he met George Ellicott, the son of Revolutionary War Major Andrew Ellicott III. Ellicott had received an excellent formal education, was a prodigious amateur scientist and astronomer, and owned a large library.  Recognizing a kindred spirit, he readily lent his books to Banneker, and the two exchanged and discussed ideas for the rest of Banneker’s life (Ellicott was more than twenty years younger).

Banneker’s genius came to light in many ways. Banneker took apart a pocket watch and, after studying the works, in 1753 made a wooden clock, which ran well for at least twenty years.  In the 1780s, Ellicott leant Banneker a copy of Gibson’s Treatise of Practical Surveying, from which he mastered surveying. Banneker’s real love, however, was astronomy, and he spent vast amounts of time watching the night sky.  Another indication of Banneker’s genius was his theory that each of the stars is a central sun and that many have planets circling them.  It was a revolutionary idea and Banneker worked it out in isolation from other thinkers and with minimal equipment.

In 1790, when Banneker was almost sixty, Congress granted President George Washington the power to choose a location for a permanent national capital. Washington selected a ten-mile square site in Virginia and Maryland that was named the District of Columbia in September, 1791.  To survey the site, he named the best surveyor he knew and trusted, Andrew Ellicott III.  Part of the agreement stipulated that Ellicott could choose his own staff; as principal assistant to survey the city, Ellicott chose Benjamin Banneker, based on an assessment of his talent and character. The job of drawing the four ten-mile boundary lines entailed crossing rivers and slogging through as well as camping in miles of overgrown, wooded, rocky, swampy wilderness to drive markers into the ground.

Only by aligning the markers with the stars could the surveyors be certain that neither Virginia nor Maryland gave more land to the project than each had promised.  For this, Banneker’s knowledge of astronomy was critical, and it meant that, in addition to the hardships of surveying during the day, the sixty-year-old was awake most nights for more than two months. Banneker then declared that his services were no longer needed and returned to his farm, eager to work on new projects.

One of Banneker’s longtime ambitions had been to write an almanac, a guide that not only published the alignment of the stars and the timing of the tides for the coming year, but also offered practical advice, recipes, and humor.  The first issue of Banneker’s Almanac was published in 1791, and it continued to appear annually until 1797.

Throughout his life, Banneker had declined to allow abolitionists to use him as an example to promote the end of slavery. However, after completing the survey and his almanac, Banneker apparently changed his mind.  Perhaps with encouragement from the Ellicotts, Banneker sent Thomas Jefferson a 10,000-word letter pointing out the discrepancies between the Declaration of Independence’s assertion of the equality of all men and the institution of slavery. He encouraged Jefferson and other national leaders to devote their efforts to end slavery and “to wean yourselves from those narrow prejudices,” and “Put your Souls in their Souls’ stead” (p. 166).  Banneker’s letter, soon made public, exposed him to physical violence from pro-slavery Marylanders, some of whom occasionally vandalized Banneker’s farm or fired shots at his cabin.

These three accomplishments—Banneker’s participation in the survey of the capital city, the publication of his first almanac, and his letter to Jefferson along with Jefferson’s reply—made 1791 Banneker’s defining year, his annus mirabilis. Benjamin Banneker died on October 6, 1806.  Two days later, while he was being buried, arsonists burned his cabin to the ground and with it most of his papers and journals and his wooden clock.  The fire burned manifestations of Banneker’s genius and of his original and independent thinking, hindered biographical research and writing, and generally impeded recognition of the accomplishments of a colonial genius.  

Not until the early 1970s was there a small public funding in Maryland to memorialize Banneker’s remarkable career.  In the mid-1980s the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks purchased the former Banneker Farmstead and surrounding land in Oella, outside Ellicott City, and established the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park.  

Now, nearly two hundred years later, Charles Cerami has foiled the arsonists.  Historians had never completely lost sight of Banneker (for example, the Maryland Historical Society sponsored lectures on him in the late 1800s and early 1900s), but now, as evidenced by the number of sites that can be found on the Web, interest in this colonial genius has renewed.  At the same time, Banneker’s only other full-length biography, Shirley Graham’s 1949 book, is usually dismissed as a “romanticized biography.”  Cerami’s biography is a welcome and long overdue addition to this sparse record.

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Charles A. Cerami. Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor, Astronomer, Publisher, Patriot. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 2002. xiii + 257 pp. Appendices, bibliographical references, index. $24.95 (cloth), ISBN 0-471-38752-5.

Reviewed by Winfield Swanson — Freelance Writer and Editor, Washington, D.C. for (February, 2003)

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Benjamin Banneker


Born near Baltimore, Maryland, in 1731, Benjamin Banneker, a self-taught mathematician, outstanding astronomer author of almanacs, surveyor, humanitarian, and inventor, was the only child of a free mulatto mother and an African father who purchased his own freedom from slavery. He lived all of his life on his parent’s farm on the Patapsco River in Baltimore County. Young Benjamin attended integrated private schools; by age 15, he obtained an eighth grade educationand excelled in mathematics. He took over his parents’ farm and became an excellent farmer.

Josef Levi, a traveling salesman, showed Banneker a pocket watch, something he had never seen before. Benjamin became so fascinated with the watch that Levi gave it to him. He took the watch home and spent days talking it apart and putting it back together. In 1753, using the watch as as a model, Banneker produced the first wooden clock ever built in the United States. It was made entirely of wood, and each gear was carved by hand. His clock kept perfect time, striking every hour; for more than forty years. News of the clock created such a sensation that people came from all over to see it, and the genius who made it.

During the revolutionary war period, George Eillicot, a neighbor introduced Banneker to the science of astronomy, which he rapidly mastered. His aptitude in mathematics and knowledge of astronomy enabled him to predict the solar eclipse that took place on April 14, 1789. In 1792, Banneker began publishing an almanac that was widely read and became the main reference for farmers in the Mid-Atlantic states. It offered weather data, recipes, medical remedies, poems and anti-slavery essays. This almanac was the first scientific book written by a Black American, and it was published annually for more than a decade.

Banneker’s major reputation stems from his service as a surveyor on the six-man team which helped design the blueprints for Washington, D.C. President Washington had appointed Banneke,r making him the first Black presidential appointee in the United States. Banneker helped in selecting the sites for the U.S. Capitol building, the U.S. Treasury building, the White House and other Federal buildings. When the chairman of the civil engineering team, Major L’Enfant, abruptly resigned and returned to France with the plans, Banneker’s photographic memory enabled him to reproduce them in their entirety. Washington, D.C., with its grand avenues and buildings, was completed and stands today as a monument to Banneker’s genius.

Banneker’s preoccupation with scientific matters in no way diminished his concern for the plight of Blacks. In a twelve-page letter to Thomas Jefferson, he refuted the statement that “Blacks were inferior to Whites.” Jefferson changed his position and, as a testimonial, sent a copy of Banneker’s almanac to the French Academy of Sciences in Paris. Another was used in Britain’s House of Commons to support an argument for the education of Blacks. Banneker was living proof that “the strength of mind is in no way connected with the color of the skin.”

Banneker’s predictions were consistently accurate, except for his prediction of his own death. Living four years longer than he had predicted, Banneker died on October 25, 1806, wrapped in a blanket observing the stars through his telescope.

Source: Empak “Black History” Publication Series (1985). 

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Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Banneker Philadelphia Aug. 30. 1791


I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th. instant and for the Almanac it contained. no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, & that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & America. 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. I have taken the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet, Secretary of the Academy of sciences at Paris, and member of the Philanthropic society because I considered it as a document to which your whole colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them. I am with great esteem, Sir,

Your most obedt. humble servt.Th. Jefferson

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Report of the Research Committeeon Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings Thomas Jefferson Foundation

January 2000


Based on the examination of currently available primary and secondary documentary evidence, the oral histories of descendants of Monticello’s African-American community, recent scientific studies, and the guidance of individual members of Monticello’s Advisory Committee for the Robert H. Smith International Center for Jefferson Studies and Advisory Committee on African-American Interpretation, the Research Committee has reached the following conclusions:

Dr. Foster’s DNA study was conducted in a manner that meets the standards of the scientific community, and its scientific results are valid.

The DNA study, combined with multiple strands of currently available documentary and statistical evidence, indicates a high probability that Thomas Jefferson fathered Eston Hemings, and that he most likely was the father of all six of Sally Hemings’s children appearing in Jefferson’s records. Those children are Harriet, who died in infancy; Beverly; an unnamed daughter who died in infancy; Harriet; Madison; and Eston.

Many aspects of this likely relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson are, and may remain, unclear, such as the nature of the relationship, the existence and longevity of Sally Hemings’s first child, and the identity of Thomas C. Woodson.

The implications of the relationship between Sally Hemings and Thomas Jefferson should be explored and used to enrich the understanding and interpretation of Jefferson and the entire Monticello community.—Monticello

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Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: A Brief Account 

Thomas Jefferson (April 13, 1743 – July 4, 1826) was the principal author of the Declaration of Independence (1776) and the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom (1777), the third President of the United States (1801–1809) and founder of the University of Virginia (1819). He was an influential Founding Father and an exponent of Jeffersonian democracy.

Sarah “Sally” Hemings (Shadwell, Albemarle County, Virginia, circa 1773 – Charlottesville, Virginia, 1835) was a mixed-race slave owned by President Thomas Jefferson through inheritance from his wife. She was the half-sister of Jefferson’s wife, Martha Wayles Skelton Jefferson by their father John Wayles. She was notable because most historians now believe that the widower Jefferson had six children with her, and maintained an extended relationship for 38 years until his death. When Jefferson’s relationship and children were reported in 1802, there was sensational coverage for a time, but Jefferson remained silent on the issue. Four Hemings-Jefferson children survived to adulthood. He let two “escape” in 1822 at the age of 21 and freed the younger two in his will in 1826.

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Thomas Jefferson and Sally Hemings: An American Controversy

By Annette Gordon-Reed

Attorney Gordon-Reed (law, New York Law Sch.) presents a lawyer’s analysis of the evidence for and against the proposition that Jefferson was the father of several children born to his household slave Sally Hemings. Gordon-Reed is not concerned with Jefferson and Hemings as much as she is with how Jefferson’s defenders have dealt with the evidence about the case. Her book takes aim at such noteworthy biographers as Dumas Malone, who has been quick to accept evidence against a liaison and quick to reject evidence for one.—Library Journal


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The Women Jefferson Loved

By Virginia Scharff

According to historian Scharff, Thomas Jefferson’s “most closely guarded secrets, the most fiercely maintained silences, all had to do with the women he loved.” It stands to reason that in order to fully understand a man as tremendously gifted and as deeply flawed as Thomas Jefferson, one must also understand and appreciate the women who collectively formed the foundation of his life and shaped the nature of his legacy. Although Jefferson’s mother, daughters, granddaughters, wife, and enslaved mistress were all fascinating women who played distinct roles in his life and legend, they were also creatures of their time and place, living, enduring, and playing by the rules of a patriarchal, male-dominated society. By studying these women Scharff not only opens a window to the heart and soul of one of our nation’s founders but also resurrects their own contributions to our nation’s history.—Booklist

The chapter on Sally Hemings does not add much new information, but it certainly lays out the facts we know in a comprehensive and well organized fashion. Much like Professor Gordon-Reed, the author carefully explains the strange dual-family existence that prevailed at Monticello, and how servants integrated with the Jefferson family as they all lived together. As regards the two daughters, they too emerge from the historical darkness and we learn a great deal about them and their important role in TJ’s life and activities. As I read each chapter, I learned all manner of things of which I had not been aware, and I have read a lot of material on TJ. So women are central to the story, but there is also an abundance of additional facts and perspectives that very much enhance the book. —Ronald H. Clark

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The Hemingses of Monticello: An American Family

By Annette Gordon-Reed


This is a scholar’s book: serious, thick, complex. It’s also fascinating, wise and of the utmost importance. Gordon-Reed, a professor of both history and law who in her previous book helped solve some of the mysteries of the intimate relationship between Thomas Jefferson and his slave Sally Hemings, now brings to life the entire Hemings family and its tangled blood links with slave-holding Virginia whites over an entire century. Gordon-Reed never slips into cynicism about the author of the Declaration of Independence. Instead, she shows how his life was deeply affected by his slave kinspeople: his lover (who was the half-sister of his deceased wife) and their children. Everyone comes vividly to life, as do the places, like Paris and Philadelphia, in which Jefferson, his daughters and some of his black family lived. So, too, do the complexities and varieties of slaves’ lives and the nature of the choices they had to make—when they had the luxury of making a choice. Gordon-Reed’s genius for reading nearly silent records makes this an extraordinary work.—Publishers Weekly

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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The Death of Emmett Till by Bob Dylan  The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll  Only a Pawn in Their Game

Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson Thanks America for Slavery

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updated 18 October 2007 




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