ONE DAY IN THE autumn of 1788, young George Ellicott stopped by the rough-hewn log cabin occupied by his friend and neighbor Benjamin Banneker, a free black man who eked out a humble living farming tobacco on a 100-acre plot adjoining the Ellicott estate.
Though the 28-year-old Ellicott, scion of the founding family of what is today Ellicott City, had been born with every advantage of wealth and education, he had found himself drawn to the reclusive, unassuming Banneker, 29 years his senior, who had won a measure of renown locally as a self-taught polymath and builder of a wooden striking clock that kept perfect time.
Ellicott was, in addition to his vocation as a successful businessman, an avid amateur astronomer who, according to a contemporary, "was in the habit of giving gratuitous lessons on astronomy to any of the inhabitants of the village who wished to hear him."
No doubt one of the villagers who heard the young Ellicott's lessons was Banneker, whose curiosity about the Ellicott family's automated gristmills gradually had drawn him out of the solitude of his isolated homestead.
Perhaps it was inevitable that young Ellicott should form an association with Banneker, for they shared many interests that were foreign to others around them. In Banneker, Ellicott recognized a kindred spirit despite the vast chasm of race, caste and class that separated them.
In any case, Ellicott took the extraordinary step of lending Banneker some astronomy books, scientific instruments and a small telescope during his visit, hoping to encourage the older man to pursue his aptitude for science and mathematics.
Before departing, however, Ellicott noticed that the only table in Banneker's house was a shaky, ill-finished piece that was neither stable nor smooth enough for using a telescope or making calculations. A few days later he sent by wagon a scarred but sturdy drop-leaf table that had been in the Ellicott family for generations.
Banneker used the table right up until his death in 1806, when he directed his nephews to return the borrowed items to the Ellicott family.
Today that table, along with documents and other items traceable to Banneker, are at the center of a heated dispute among Banneker's descendants, the heirs of George Ellicott, and preservation groups seeking to keep Banneker's effects in Maryland so they can be displayed in a planned new museum dedicated to the memory of the nation's first African-American man of science.
Elizabeth Wilde, the Ellicott family member who inherited the Banneker-related items, plans to sell more than 20 Banneker artifacts and documents next month through C. G. Sloan auction house in Bethesda.
Wilde, who lives in Indianapolis, has rebuffed appeals from Banneker historians, relatives and admirers to donate the artifacts to the new Banneker museum or give the sponsoring group more time to raise money so it can buy the items itself.
The Baltimore-based Friends of Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum have been working since 1982 to create a park and museum on the site of Banneker's farm, off present-day Oella Avenue in Baltimore County, about one mile from Ellicott City. Groundbreaking for the $3 million project is set for early next month -- coincidentally the same week the Banneker items are scheduled to be sold at auction.
The controversy recalls a similar dispute earlier this year involving the Lucas Collection of historic artworks owned by the Maryland Institute, College of Art.
The institute wanted to sell thousands of prints, paintings and sculptures by artists such as Edouard Manet, James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Mary Cassatt and Eugene Delacroix to raise money for its endowment.
But it was opposed by the Walters Art Gallery and the Baltimore Museum of Art, which had housed and maintained the collection for more than six decades.
In June a compromise was reached, which allowed the collection to remain in Maryland.
The state agreed to pay $4.25 million over several years to the Maryland Institute, and the BMA and the Walters Art Gallery agreed to raise another $4.5 million with help from the Baltimore Community Foundation, a nonprofit cultural advocacy organization.
The Banneker controversy seems like a good candidate for a similar resolution, especially given the fact that the sums involved are relatively small compared with the Lucas settlement.
The drop-leaf table on which Banneker taught himself the fundamentals of astronomy and made the observations and calculations that led to publication of his famous almanacs of the 1790s, for example, has an estimated value of $10,000 to $30,000.
Banneker's biographer, Silvio A. Bedini, writes that the lesson to be derived from Banneker's life is "that a thirst for knowledge is not limited to youth, and that the process of learning recognizes no barrier of color, race or creed." Certainly Banneker's achievement is one in which all Marylanders can take pride.
It would be a pity to see these treasures scattered on the auction market among private collectors. They should remain in Maryland, and the most appropriate place for them is in the museum dedicated to preserving Banneker's unique legacy.
Pub Date: 8/25/96