The Genius of Oella Avenue

October 21, 1992

Benjamin Banneker was one of early America's authentic geniuses. In 1761, for example, his extraordinary mechanical inventiveness enabled him to build what was probably the first clock made in America -- a wooden "striking" clock so accurate that it kept perfect time for more than 20 years.

Banneker's skill at mathematics and astronomy also allowed him to predict the solar eclipse of 1789 and play an important part in the six-man surveying team that laid out the blueprint for the District of Columbia. When the team leader, Maj. Pierre L'Enfant, abruptly resigned and returned to France with the plans for the young nation's capital, Banneker's precise memory enabled him to reproduce the plans in their entirety.

Benjamin Banneker's accomplishments were all the more remarkable in that he was a black man during an era when slavery was virtually universal in the South. He was born near what is now Ellicott City, of a free mother and a slave father who eventually was able to buy his own freedom. Thus Banneker was considered free and was allowed to attend an integrated Quaker school, where he received the equivalent of an eighth-grade education.

In 1792, Banneker began publishing an almanac, the first book of its type to appear in America, containing predictions for the positions of the planets, tide information, data on future eclipses and lists of useful medicinal products and formulas. "Benjamin Banneker's Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanac" appeared annually for more than a decade and set the pattern for all the farmer's almanacs that followed.

Banneker lived almost his entire life in a one-room log cabin near what is now Oella Avenue in southern Baltimore County, between Catonsville and Ellicott City. In 1985, Baltimore County purchased a 43-acre parcel of Banneker's original homestead for a historical park honoring his achievements, and in 1990 the state authorized a $500,000 matching grant for the project, which will cover the cost of a visitors' center on the site.

The Friends of Benjamin Banneker Historical Park, organized to promote the park concept, is working to raise another $3 million. Honoring one of Maryland's pioneering scientific minds is a worthy goal that deserves the support of those who value this state's rich historical legacy.

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