Honoring Benjamin Banneker

December 10, 1993

For most of his life, Benjamin Banneker lived in a one-room log cabin near what is now Oella Avenue in southern Baltimore County, between Catonsville and Ellicott City. A farmer by vocation, Banneker was also a mathematical prodigy, land surveyor and inventor who constructed the first mechanical clock made in America. He also published the country's first farmer's almanac, which was based on his own astronomical observations.

Banneker's achievements were all the more remarkable given that he was a free black man during an era when slavery was virtually universal in the South. He was born in 1731 near what is now Ellicott City, the son of a free mother and a slave father who eventually was able to buy his freedom. Young Banneker received the equivalent of an eighth-grade education at a Quaker school. Some time later he met George Ellicott, a Pennsylvania Quaker who had bought land adjoining the Banneker homestead to build a flour mill. Impressed by Banneker's general knowledge of mathematical and engineering problems during the construction of his mills, Ellicott began lending the young man books on astronomy. Banneker absorbed the texts so thoroughly that he was able to accurately predict the solar eclipse of 1789.

Banneker sent a manuscript of his first almanac, published in 1791, to Thomas Jefferson, along with a letter arguing the injustice of slavery. He later served with the commission that surveyed the District of Columbia under Maj. Pierre L'Enfant. When 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.

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 county parks department hopes to break ground on the project early next year, but there is only enough money to complete the first phase of the project this year.

That is why a group of local citizens has formed the Friends of Benjamin Banneker Historical Park to raise additional funds so that the park can be completed by 1995. The group has set a goal of $2.5 million to create an exhibition gallery and archaeological display on the site as well as to build a replica of Banneker's original log dwelling. Banneker's achievements as the first African-American man of science make the park that will bear his name a landmark of national significance.

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