Computer operator finds his lost link to Banneker

October 23, 1992|By JACQUES KELLY

A 43-year-old amateur historian in Ohio made a startling discovery while climbing through the limbs of his family tree.

He found the long-lost sister of Benjamin Banneker, the Oella astronomer often called this country's "first black man of science."

Charles Weiker, a computer operator who lives in Fremont, Ohio, began researching his family's origins more than 25 years ago. He had no idea that a long trail of old census tracts, wills and birth certificates would establish a family connection with one of Baltimore's most celebrated historical personages.

Weiker established Banneker's "lost" sister, Gemima Banneker Lett, who married Samuel Lett, a white man of English and Irish parentage.

They left the Baltimore area in the middle 1700s and settled in Frederick County.

Their son, Aquilla Lett, moved to Ohio, where generations of his offspring have resided ever since.

"I'd call this one of the most remarkable genealogical discoveries I've ever heard of," says Samuel Hopkins, a past president of the Maryland Historical Society. "Even Gemima's name had been lost to history until Mr. Weiker wove all the threads together."

This past weekend Weiker and his mother, Mary Hunter Weiker, made their first trip to Baltimore and visited the old Banneker homestead. Once known as "Stout," it is where Benjamin and his sisters Gemima, Minta and Molly lived on Oella Avenue between Catonsville and Ellicott City. Banneker (1731-1806) himself had no children.

The 43-acre site is currently being readied as a park and center for interpretive history.

When it is completed, displays and artifacts will give an idea of rural 18th century life and tell the story of Maryland's free African-Americans.

"It was an overwhelming feeling to go back to the earliest land that can be traced to your family," Weiker says of his link to Gemima Banneker Lett, eight generations distant.

Two hundred years ago, his famous ancestor published his first scientific almanac. Banneker is widely recognized for his work in mathematics and astronomy. He compiled the ephemerides (the tables giving the positions of the heavenly bodies) for the mid-Atlantic region.

His first almanac was issued in 1792 and there were annual editions until 1797.

Banneker also assisted in the survey of the federal territory now called the District of Columbia.

When in Baltimore, the Weikers visited Gwen Marable, a cousin born in Lima, Ohio, who moved here several years ago and has taught in a city literacy program.

"All that time I sat in the classroom and listened to the children give book reports on Benjamin Banneker, I never had any idea that he was in my family," Marable says.

The Ohio descendants of Gemima Banneker Lett settled in Belmont County in the early 1800s and established themselves as farmers.

They prized learning and education and had to battle with local governments to get schooling for their children.

Weiker says he got interested in family history, or genealogy, when he was a senior in high school and a teacher assigned a class project.

Elderly family members had their memories and photographs, which he used as the beginning of his work.

A few weeks ago, Weiker contacted Silvio A. Bedini, whose 1972 biography of Banneker is considered the definitive work on the man.

Bedini holds the title of Smithsonian Institution historian emeritus.

"The story of Gemima is a great addition to the family story," says Bedini. "I was never able to find any record of her, not even her name.

"It's obvious now what happened. She married and went West. Her move was so logical, it was something I should have checked."

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