To Benjamin Banneker, born this day in 1731 in Baltimore County, Maryland, the words “all men are created” had potent meaning. A free black and descendant of former slaves, Banneker had been limited to a few scattered months of education at a one-room Quaker school. But from an early age he exhibited a mathematical and scientific genius. As a young farmer, he decided to build a clock that struck the hours, even though he had never seen one before. He made it entirely from wood, carving the gears and wheels with a pocketknife, and it kept time for more than forty years.
At age fifty-seven, Banneker borrowed some books and a telescope from a neighbor, George Ellicott, and taught himself astronomical calculations that allowed him to predict a 1789 solar eclipse. In 1791 he helped lay out the boundaries of the nation’s new capital, the District of Columbia.
From 1792 to 1797 he furnished the astronomical tables for Benjamin Banneker’s Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanack. The yearly almanacs spread his fame as the “African astronomer,” and abolitionists used them to fight anti-black stereotypes.
Banneker sent his first almanac to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, along with a letter reminding him of the ideals he’d expressed in the Declaration of Independence. He wrote Jefferson that he hoped “that your sentiments are concurrent with mine, which are, that one universal Father hath given being to us all; and that he hath . . . afforded us all the same sensations and endowed us all with the same faculties.”
Jefferson’s cordial reply expressed satisfaction “to see such proofs as you exhibit.” A more cogent observation came from Maryland’s James McHenry, a signer of the Constitution. Benjamin Banneker’s work, he wrote, showed that “the powers of the mind are disconnected to the color of the skin.”