Born in 1731 to freed slaves on a farm in Baltimore, Maryland, Benjamin Banneker was obsessed with math and science. And his appetite for knowledge only grew as he taught himself astronomy, mathematics, engineering, and the study of the natural world. As an adult, he used astronomy to accurately predict lunar and solar events, like the solar eclipse of 1789, and used his scientific expertise to pioneer new agricultural methods on his family’s tobacco farm.
In 1792, Banneker began publishing almanacs. He was among the first Americans, and the first African-American, to publish almanacs. These provided detailed annual information on moon and sun cycles, weather forecasts, and planting and tidal time tables.
Banneker sent a handwritten copy of his first almanac to Virginia’s Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. This was a decade before Jefferson became president. Jefferson read the almanac and wrote back in praise of Banneker’s work.
Banneker included a letter imploring Jefferson to “embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions” that caused prejudice against black people. The letter also denounced the Bill of Rights as disingenuous. Banneker questioned the rationale of the imperialistic position taken by the Founding Fathers, especially in light of their rebellion against the tyranny imposed on them by England as settlers seeking a better life in America.
Banneker’s correspondence with the future president is now considered to be one of the first documented examples of a civil rights protest letter in America. For the rest of his life, Banneker fought for this cause, sharing his opposition to slavery through his writing.
Banneker, in his debut almanac of 1792 , was the first to recommend the establishment of a U.S. Department of Peace. It wasn’t until nearly two hundred years later that the U.S. Institute of Peace was established by Congressional authorization in 1984. The organization acknowledges Banneker for his role as the pioneering agent of this idea and states:
The first formal proposal for the establishment of an official U.S. government peace institution dates to 1792. The product of efforts by architect and publisher Benjamin Banneker and physician and educator Dr. Benjamin Rush. The proposal called for establishing a “Peace Office” on equal footing with the War Department – noting the importance to the welfare of the United States of “an office for promoting and preserving perpetual peace in our country.
From the TED-Ed Lesson The exceptional life of Benjamin Banneker – Rose-Margaret Ekeng-Itua
Animation by Jun Zee Myers
This month is Black History Month, or National African American History Month, an annual celebration of achievements by black Americans and a time for recognizing the central role of African Americans in U.S. history.
Today we are honoring Benjamin Banneker, a true renaissance man, who authored almanacs and worked as a surveyor, naturalist, and farmer. His correspondence with the Thomas Jefferson is now considered to be one of the first documented examples of a civil rights protest letter in America.