Banneker museum takes root Tribute: A memorial to Benjamin Banneker, 'the first black man of science,' is under construction on the site of his 18th-century homestead near Oella.

August 15, 1997|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

Friends of Benjamin Banneker were smiling yesterday as they toured a work in progress -- the 6,000-square-foot museum and visitor center taking shape on his homestead, a former tobacco farm just outside Oella in southwestern Baltimore County.

Members of the group shepherding the project say that showcasing the life and achievements of the self-taught Banneker, known as "the first black man of science," will inspire the wayward youth of today.

"His life is an example of a very diverse society. Its lesson is how it can be helpful in life to have the help of other people," said Samuel Hopkins, an 83-year-old Banneker scholar and descendant of the Ellicott family, the founders of Ellicott City. "This is going to commemorate a life that the present generation is going to learn from."

The $3 million project, to be known as the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, is expected to open in March at Old Frederick Road and Oella Avenue near Catonsville, the site on which Banneker's log cabin once stood.

During the tour yesterday, members of the Banneker society beamed as architects explained the design of the U-shaped museum and visitor center soon to house Banneker's documents and furniture -- even his candlesticks.

"This gives us a sense of what the final product will look like," said Bill Lambert, chairman of the 160-member Friends of Benjamin Banneker.

Lambert said it will show the lifelong quest for knowledge by Banneker, who had little formal schooling. His white English grandmother, Molly Welsch, taught him to read and write at an early age.

"He was a very modest person," Lambert said. If Banneker were alive, he speculated, "he'd say, 'If I could teach myself to be a person of science and math, surely the young folk of today can learn from the professionals.' "

Most of Banneker's possessions were burned in a fire that destroyed his home on the day of his burial in 1806, but some documents and furniture that were placed in the trust of the Ellicott family have been preserved.

The museum will include some of those Banneker artifacts, on loan from history buff Emanuel J. Friedman, who bought them for $85,000 last year at a Bethesda auction. It will also have videos depicting the life of Banneker, a gift shop and a restaurant.

Supporting the project are grants from the Maryland Historical Trust and the state's Program Open Space, dedicated to the preservation of natural, scenic and cultural resources, said Howard N. Gaskill, project manager for the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks.

Historical documents show that Banneker's family moved to the Oella-area site in 1737, when Benjamin was 6, after his father, Robert Banneker, received 100 acres in exchange for 7,000 pounds of tobacco.

After briefly attending a Quaker school in the local farming community, Banneker left to work on the family farm. He continued to study every night on his own, teaching himself math and science from borrowed books.

A friendship with George Ellicott, formed in the 1780s, opened up the world of astronomy to Banneker, who borrowed Ellicott's telescope and measuring instruments to diagram planetary paths and the movement of the sun and moon.

A free black man who helped lay out the District of Columbia, Banneker decried the disgrace of slavery, particularly in a strongly worded letter to then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson.

"This museum is something that all people can share whether they are black or white," Hopkins said. "Banneker can be a role model for them. If kids knew more about him, they could cope with life and have less problems."

Benjamin Banneker

Born: 1731, in southwestern Baltimore County

Died: 1806 at the same location

His life:

* Attended a rural Quaker school where he learned and embarked on numerous self-taught lessons of mathematics and the sciences.

* Constructed a mechanical wooden clock.

* In the 1780s, Banneker befriended George Ellicott, whose family ran nearby flour mills, and Ellicott taught him the mysteries of the universe using a telescope.

* In 1791, Banneker maintained the astronomical clock on a team commissioned by President George Washington assembled to survey the District of Columbia boundaries.

* A free black man, Banneker was used as an example of black achievement by abolitionists.

Pub Date: 8/15/97

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