Although it is difficult to verify details of Benjamin Banneker's family history, it appears that his grandmother was a European American named Molly Welsh. The story goes that Molly met a slave named Banneka when she purchased him to help establish a farm located near the future site of Ellicott's Mills, west of Baltimore, Maryland. This part of Maryland was out of the mainstream of the colonial South, and as result had a more tolerant attitude toward African Americans than did colonial areas in which slavery was more prevalent. A member of the Dogon tribe (reputed to have a historical knowledge of astronomy), Banneka may have cleared Molly's land, solved irrigation problems, and implemented a crop rotation for her. Soon thereafter, Molly freed and married Banneka, who may have shared his knowledge of astronomy with her. Benjamin's mother, Mary, was the daughter of Molly and Banneka. Although born after Banneka's death, Benjamin may have acquired some of his grandfather's knowledge via Molly, who appears to have taught him how to read, farm, and interpret the sky as Banneka had taught her. Little is known about Benjamin's father Robert, a first-generation slave who had fled his owner.
As a young teenager, Banneker met and befriended Peter Heinrichs, a Quaker farmer who established a school near Banneker's family's farm. Heinrichs shared his personal library with Banneker and provided Banneker's only classroom instruction. (During Banneker's lifetime, Quakers were leaders in the antislavery movement and advocates of racial equality in accordance with their Testimony of Equality belief.)
Once he was old enough to help on his parents' farm, Benjamin's formal education ended. He spent most of the rest of his life at the farm.
When he was about 20, he thought about time. Apparently using a pocketwatch borrowed from a merchant or traveler as a model, Banneker carved wooden replicas of each piece and used the parts to make a clock. In 1753, he completed a clock that continued to work for many years. At times, white neighbors came to see it.
After his father died in 1759, Banneker began his more formal study of astronomy as an adult, using books and equipment that George Ellicott, a member of a Quaker family, lent to him in 1788. The following year, he sent George his work on the solar eclipse. In early 1791, Major Andrew Ellicott, a member of the same family, hired Banneker to assist in a survey of the boundaries of the 100 square mile federal district (initially, the Territory of Columbia; later, the District of Columbia) that Maryland and Virginia would cede to the federal government of the United States in accordance with the federal Residence Act of 1790 and later legislation.
Banneker's activities on the survey team resembled those used in celestial navigation during his lifetime. His duties consisted primarily of making astronomical observations to ascertain distances and locations along the district's boundaries and of maintaining a clock that he used when relating points along the boundaries to the positions of stars at specific times. Because of illness and the difficulties in helping to survey at the age of 59 an extensive area that was largely wilderness, Banneker left the boundary survey in April 1791 and returned to his home at Ellicott's Mills to work on an ephemeris. Ellicott continued the survey with other assistants through 1791 and 1792.
At Ellicott's Mills, Banneker made astronomical calculations that predicted solar and lunar eclipses for inclusion in his ephemeris. He placed the ephemeris in Benjamin Banneker's Almanac, which an anti-slavery society published from 1792 through 1797. In his 1793 Almanack, he included letters sent between Thomas Jefferson and himself. The cover of the 1795 Almanac had a woodcut portrait of Benjamin. He also kept a series of astronomical journals that contained his notebooks for astronomical observations, his diary, and his mathematical calculations.
Banneker thus followed a course that Martin Luther King, Jr. later echoed. Both initially promoted the rights of African Americans, but later advocated the peaceful equality of all humanity. European Americans that supported racial equality and an end to racial discrimination in different eras helped both of the men.
Banneker never married. He died in his log cabin on October 9, 1806, exactly one month before his 75th birthday. A commemorative obelisk that the Maryland Bicentennial Commission and the State Commission on Afro American History and Culture erected in 1977 stands near his unmarked grave in an Oella, Maryland, churchyard.
August 19, 1791:
"Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren, under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves."
While Andrew Ellicott and his team were conducting the district boundary survey, Pierre (Peter) Charles L'Enfant was preparing a plan for the federal capital city (the City of Washington), which would be located in a relatively small area bounded by the Potomac River, the Anacostia River (known at the time as the "Eastern Branch"), the base of the fall line and Rock Creek at the center of the much larger 100 square mile federal district. In February 1792, President George Washington dismissed L'Enfant, who had failed to have his plan published and who was experiencing frequent conflicts with the three Commissioners that Washington had appointed to supervise the planning and survey of the federal district and city.
According to the Banneker legend, L'Enfant took his plans with him after his dismissal, leaving no copies behind. As the story is told, Banneker spent two days reconstructing the bulk of the city's plan from his presumably photographic memory. The plans that Banneker puportedly drew from memory provided the basis for the later construction of the federal capital city.
In one version of the legend, Banneker and Andrew Ellicott both surveyed the area of, and configured the final layout for, the placement of major governmental buildings, boulevards and avenues while reconstructing L'Enfant's plan. According to this version, Banneker either "made astronomical calculations and implementations" that established points of significance in the capital city, including those of the 16th Street Meridian, the White House, the Capitol and the Treasury Building, or "helped in selecting the sites" of those features.
However, the legend cannot be correct. Banneker left the federal capital area and returned to Ellicott's Mills in April 1791. At that time, L'Enfant was still developing his plan for the federal city and had not yet been dismissed from his job. L'Enfant presented his plan to President George Washington in August 1791, four months after Banneker had left.
Further, there was never any need to reconstruct L'Enfant's plan. At the time that L'Enfant resigned, President Washington and perhaps others, including Andrew Ellicott, possessed copies of various versions of the plan that L'Enfant had prepared. After largely completing the district boundary survey, Ellicott began a survey of the federal city in accordance with L'Enfant's plan and continued the city survey in accordance with revisions to the plan that he alone made after L'Enfant departed.
The U.S. Library of Congress presently owns a copy of a plan for the federal city that bears the adopted name of the plan's author, "Peter Charles L'Enfant". The U.S. National Archives holds a copy of "Ellicott's engraved Plan superimposed on the Plan of L'Enfant showing the changes made in the engraved Plan under the direction of President Washington". As an original version of L'Enfant's plan still exists, President Washington and Ellicott clearly had at least one such version available for their use after L'Enfant departed.
In 1943, Charles Alston embellished the Banneker legend by stating in a cartoon that Banneker was a "city planner" and "was placed on the commission which surveyed and laid out the city of Washington, D.C." The cartoon also stated that Banneker "constructed the first clock made in America".
In 1976, the singer-songwriter Stevie Wonder celebrated Banneker's mythological achievements in his song "Black Man", from the album "Songs in the Key of Life". A stanza in the song states: "Who was the man who helped design the nation's capitol, made the first clock to give time in America and wrote the first almanac? Benjamin Banneker - a black man." The question's answer is incorrect. Banneker did not help design either the U.S. Capitol or the nation's capital city. The first known American clock was made in 1680. "Pierce's (Peirse's) Almanac of 1639 calculated for New England and printed by Stephen Day" preceded Banneker's birth by nearly a century.
In 2008, when the Newseum opened to the public on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., visitors looking over the Avenue could read a historic marker that stated: “Benjamin Banneker assisted Chief Surveyor Andrew Ellicott in laying out the Avenue based on Pierre L’Enfant’s Plan. President George Washington appointed Ellicott and Banneker to survey the boundaries of the new city.” Little of this is correct. Banneker had no involvement with the laying out of Pennsylvania Avenue or with L’Enfant’s Plan. President Washington appointed Ellicott to survey the boundaries of the federal district (not the “boundaries of the new city”), but it was Ellicott who appointed Banneker to assist in the boundary survey.
Also in 2008, the District of Columbia government considered selecting an image of Banneker to represent the District on the side of a 2009 commemorative United States quarter dollar coin. The narrative supporting this selection stated that Banneker was "among the first ever African-American presidential appointees" and that Banneker was "a founder of Washington, D.C." After the District chose to commemorate another person on the coin, the District's mayor, Adrian M.Fenty, sent a letter to the Director of the United States Mint that claimed that Banneker had "played an integral role in the physical design of the nation's capital. In reality, no president ever appointed Banneker to any position. Further, Banneker played no role at all in the design, development or founding of the nation's capital beyond his two-month participation in the two-year survey of the federal district's boundaries.
A park commemorating Benjamin Banneker is located at the former site of Banneker's farm and residence in Baltimore County, Maryland, between Ellicott City and the City of Baltimore. The park encompasses 138 acres and contains extensive nature trails. The primary focus of the park is a museum highlighting Banneker's contributions. The museum contains a visitors center that features a collection of Banneker's works,a community gallery, a gift shop and a patio garden.
A small urban park memorializing Benjamin Banneker is located at a prominent overlook at the south end of L'Enfant Promenade in southwest Washington, D.C., a half mile south of the Smithsonian Institution's "Castle" on the National Mall. The National Park Service administers the park and has erected a historical marker there. The Government of the District of Columbia owns the park's site, which is inside of a traffic circle (Benjamin Banneker Circle). The park, which was constructed in 1970, is now stop number 8 on Washington's Southwest Heritage Trail. In 2004, the D.C. Preservation League listed the park as one of the most endangered places in the District of Columbia.
The Washington Interdependence Council is planning to construct a monumental memorial to Banneker at or near the site of the park. On November 8, 2006, the Council held a charrette to select the artist that would design the memorial.