Awaited Banneker museum to open Its dedication, tribute to black scientist to occur tomorrow

June 08, 1998|By Melody Simmons | Melody Simmons,SUN STAFF

After years of planning, lobbying and artifact hunting, admirers of Benjamin Banneker will see their dream become reality tomorrow with the opening of a museum and park in Oella dedicated to the pioneering black scientist.

Visitors will be greeted by a scattering of silver stars on the sign at Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum -- a tribute to the luminous life of the museum's astronomer namesake.

It will be at least a year before the long-awaited museum is fully operational and stocked with biographical exhibits on Banneker, the son of a freed slave and grandson of an African prince, and known as the "first black man of science."

Banneker's 142-acre former homesite will be the shrine sought by admirers of the self-taught astronomer, almanac author and surveyor who lived during Colonial times.

"It's a salute to a figure who played a pivotal role in defining the new country," said Steven X. Lee, a historian and supervisor of the $2.5 million museum that will become the latest jewel among Maryland's public parks and historical sites. "It's good to see the state appreciate a long-buried treasure."

Gwen Marable, a retired first-grade teacher and Banneker descendant, predicted the modern one-story facility will draw students from throughout the state.

The museum, which will have limited hours until Labor Day, will open with an exhibit sponsored by the Maryland Humanities Council called "Remember Maryland," reflecting the Colonial era. It will include a reproduction of an almanac created by Bannekey for charting the heavens.

Artifacts from Banneker's life -- including a William and Mary drop-leaf table, candlesticks and candle molds, and documents PTC -- will be exhibited next year as part of a 20-year loan from the African-American Civil War Memorial Foundation in Washington.

The museum opens as local environmentalists and land preservationists have commissioned a $135,000 master plan for the Patapsco River Valley that includes Oella.

The study by the Patapsco Heritage Greenway Committee will explore tourism opportunities and ways to preserve, enhance and interpret the historical culture and natural resources of the valley.

Anchoring that rejuvenation will be the museum, a dream of Banneker enthusiasts who have pushed for years to establish it.

The museum, funded mainly by the state and county with some private donations, is owned and operated by the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks, which has not established an admission charge.

"Banneker was a very humble person -- he would be really shocked by this park, and pleasantly so," Lee said. "He never would have dreamed that his work would be recognized like this."

Banneker learned to read from his grandmother, an indentured servant who taught him words from the Bible. He used that love of knowledge -- and the family's African tradition of using celestial formations to plant crops -- to teach himself astronomy. He also learned to play the violin and flute.

Banneker died Oct. 9, 1806, at 74. Most of his possessions burned the day of his burial in a fire that destroyed his house on the family's tobacco farm.

But some relics and writings remain, Lee said.

A private group, the Friends of Benjamin Banneker, was unable to acquire some of Banneker's possessions during a 1996 auction. Those items were purchased by Emanuel J. Friedman, an Arlington, Va., investor and former history teacher who donated the collection to the African-American Civil War Foundation.

"As part of the transaction, they agreed to loan it to the Banneker museum for a number of years -- and with a right of renewal, I would hope they would be there forever," Friedman said.

Bill Lambert, president of the Friends of Benjamin Banneker, said Banneker's life could inspire students.

The Benjamin Banneker Museum and Park, 300 Oella Ave., will be dedicated at 4 p.m. tomorrow.

Pub Date: 6/08/98

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