Banneker ceremony brings 'closure' Museum: After planning that started in 1985, groundbreaking for a historical park and museum honoring "the first black man of science" finally happens.

September 05, 1996|By Lisa Respers | Lisa Respers,SUN STAFF

When Gwen Marable moved to Baltimore from New York in 1990, she assigned students in her literacy program a book on the life of African-American scientist Benjamin Banneker.

Two years later, she learned of a more personal connection to Banneker: A cousin told her by phone that Marable was a descendant of Maryland's famed mathematician, astronomer and surveyor, dubbed "the first black man of science."

"It was a feeling of not quite believing it, being awed by it -- and then having to re-believe it," Marable, president of The Friends of Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, said yesterday during a groundbreaking ceremony in Oella for the long-awaited project.

The $2.4 million historical park project has been in the discussion and planning stages since 1985.

It will sit on the 130-acre site where Banneker, who was born a free man in Oella in 1731, lived until his death in 1806.

Plans for the park and museum, which is to open in 1998, include a 5,900-square-foot visitors center and museum, preserved archaeological dig sites, trails and picnic areas and space for meetings and receptions.

Yesterday's event was the culmination of years of work for members of the friends of Banneker group. In the past year, the group has contended with bureaucratic delays that put the groundbreaking months behind schedule.

"It's very important that we have closure, because this project has had a history of going on and on and on," said Marable. "Now, we're really at a point where we can move forward."

Marable has been involved with the project since 1992, when she learned of her relationship to Banneker. She took over last year as president of group that was instrumental in getting the project off the ground.

A 63-year-old retired teacher who is now an artist, writer, and yoga instructor, Marable is a "collateral descendant" of Banneker, who never married or fathered children. She is a descendant of Jemima Banneker Lett, one of the scientist's three sisters.

Marable said she was stunned when her cousin, Charles Weiker, called to say his research into family history had turned up the link to Banneker.

"I've taught about him and it's like I've always been aware of him," said Marable. "But after the phone call, I immersed myself in learning about him."

Two weeks after learning that she was related to Banneker, she attended a symposium on him at Catonsville Community College with Weiker and his mother, who live in Ohio.

Marable later began going to meetings of the Friends of Banneker group with Samuel Hopkins, a descendant of the Ellicott City family with whom Banneker shared a close friendship.

Jean Walsh, a founding member of the Friends of Banneker group, said Marable's assistance has proved invaluable.

"It's been wonderful having a descendant involved," Walsh said. "Gwen's intensely interested, she's very competent and she knows how to get things done. We feel very honored to have her serve as our chairwoman."

More than 100 people turned out in the rain for yesterday's groundbreaking, including Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger III, Catonsville Councilman Stephen G. Sam Moxley and John R. Griffin, secretary of the state Department of Natural Resources.

Nancy Blumenthal, a second-grade teacher at McDonogh School Owings Mills, said the event revitalized her interest in teaching her students about Banneker.

"I'm really fired up about this," she said. "Caring about Banneker and the whole legacy of African-Americans is inspiring to us all."

Supporters of the project are attempting to purchase artifacts belonging to Banneker that will be auctioned Saturday. Marable said she envisions a museum that will educate the public about Banneker, whom she has come to admire through her studies.

"I see him as a man who took what he had and did the most that he could with it," Marable said. "I have some vision about how to bring Benjamin Banneker alive for the children who come to the museum so they can learn about his remarkable life."

Pub Date: 9/05/96

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