Banneker's family tree still bears rich fruit

June 12, 2006|By GREGORY KANE

And so Molly Welsh, an Englishwoman sentenced to indentured servitude in 17th-century Maryland, wed an African slave named Bannaka. And they begat four daughters, one of whom was named Mary.

And Mary wed a slave named Robert, who took her last name, which, by the time of their nuptials, had become Bannaky. Mary and Robert begat one son and three daughters. One of the daughters, Jemima, wed Samuel D. Lett. From that union came eight children, including a son named Aquilla.

"Aquilla Lett eventually moved to Ohio," Gwen Marable said Saturday afternoon. A number of generations later, "that's how I came to be born in Ohio," she said. Marable eventually found her way to Maryland. She may be in these parts for good.

"The project has really kept me here," Marable said.

That project would be the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum in Baltimore County. That son Mary and Robert Bannaky had was none other than Benjamin Banneker - the farmer, astronomer, mathematician, surveyor and publisher - whose farm once sat on the site where the park is now located. Marable described herself as a collateral descendant of Banneker, not a direct descendant.

Marable was on hand Saturday to celebrate the museum's eighth anniversary and the grand opening of a new permanent exhibit: the Banneker Gallery. (The park opened in 1989, according to the "Benjamin Banneker Historical Park" brochure published by the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks.)

There are 12 stations in the Banneker Gallery. One shows mathematical excerpts from his journal, another, astronomical ones. A third shows pages from some of his almanacs. A fourth shows a telescope that "could also well be one of those loaned to Benjamin Banneker," according to the Banneker Gallery Guide. The owner of the telescope was Andrew Ellicott, a member of the Maryland family that befriended Banneker.

A fifth exhibit shows a page from the Gazette of the United States & Philadelphia Daily Advertiser, which the Banneker Gallery Guide says was "the only newspaper known to have printed both Banneker's 1791 letter to Thomas Jefferson, and Thomas Jefferson's reply to Banneker in the same article."

Yes, in addition to being an astronomer, mathematician, farmer, surveyor and publisher, Banneker struck an early blow for the abolition of slavery by challenging Jefferson's views on the inferiority of blacks and chiding the future president for owning slaves. No wonder this extraordinary Marylander has a museum and park named for him.

But the very first station in the Banneker Gallery shows an illustration with the caption "Molly Welsh Reading to Benjamin Banneker," her grandson. Welsh is the woman who's also known as Molly Bannaky. There's a renovated house at the park named for her: the Molly Bannaky House. After Molly Welsh served her term of indentured servitude, she bought a farm. Two slaves came with the farm. One of those slaves ran off. The other was Bannaka.

"It's been said that she married Bannaka to keep him from running off," said Cole Wiggins, a board member of the Friends of the Banneker Historical Park and Museum. "But don't quote me on that. It's never been proved."

Actually, wisecracking husbands might say that Welsh's marrying Bannaka might have been the sure way to make him run off. What may be closer to the truth is that marriages between white, female indentured servants and black men - whether slave or "free men of color" - could have been quite common at the time.

Whatever the truth is, the fact remains that Welsh and Bannaka married and had children. Welsh and Bannaka put their heads - one European, one African - together and drew from their own experiences the knowledge that led to their having a successful farm.

Their children had children. One of them was Banneker, and Maryland was better off for it.

"It's a misnomer somewhat," Wiggins said of the Molly Bannaky House. Molly never lived there. But since it's located in the Banneker Historical Park, it had to be named something. Wiggins said the Molly Bannaky House is used as an administrative office for the park and for storage. Occasionally, it may be rented out to small groups.

Wiggins, who volunteers at the museum, said that school groups visiting the park and museum also visit the Molly Bannaky House. The purpose of the park, museum and Molly Bannaky House, Wiggins said, is to "encourage the educational curiosity of the youngsters. There's a particular emphasis on math and science."

Why is Benjamin Banneker still important to school kids - especially black school kids - in 2006, 200 years after he died?

His life "stimulates their own educational pursuit," Wiggins said, re-emphasizing Banneker's achievements in math, science and publishing. "It's important that they know people like them did that."

gregory.kane@baltsun.com

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