Early YearsAstronomer. Entirely self-educated, Benjamin Banneker was born November 9, 1731, in Ellicott's Mills, Maryland. He was the son of an ex-slave named Robert, whose wife, Mary Banneky, was the daughter of an Englishwoman and an African ex-slave.
Because both of his parents were free, Benjamin escaped the wrath of slavery as well. He was taught to read by his white grandmother, Molly, and for a short time attended a small Quaker school.
For the most part, though, Banneker was self-educated, a fact that did little to diminish his brilliance. His early exploits included constructing a wooden clock in his early twenties, despite having seen only one other timepiece in his life. In addition, Banneker taught himself astronomy and accurately forecasted lunar and solar eclipses.
Banneker's talents and intelligence eventually came to the attention of the Ellicott brothers, industrialists who had made their name and fortune by building a series of gristmills in the Baltimore area in the 1770s. George Ellicott, a fellow mathematician and astronomer, loaned Banneker numerous books in both fields.
In 1791 Banneker teamed up with Major Andrew Ellicott, an American surveyor, to map out a new national capital.
Banneker's AlmanacsBanneker's true acclaim, however, came from his almanac, which he published for six consecutive years between 1792 and 1797. These almanacs included his own astronomical calculations as well as opinion pieces, literature, and medical and tidal information, among other things.
Outside of his almanacs, Banneker also published information on bees and calculated the cycle of the 17-year locust.
Letter to JeffersonBanneker's confidence extended into other realms. During Thomas Jefferson's tenure as secretary of state, Banneker wrote the respected Virginian and attacked his proslavery stance. He criticized Jefferson, a slave owner himself, for his "absurd and false ideas" and urged him to recognize that "one Universal Father…afforded us all the same sensations and endowed us all with the same faculties."
To his credit, Jefferson acknowledged Banneker's letter, writing him a response, which Banneker published alongside his original piece of correspondence in his 1793 almanac.
Banneker's outspokenness with regard to the issue of slavery earned him the widespread support of the abolitionist societies in Maryland and Pennsylvania, both of which helped him publish his almanac.
Benjamin Banneker died in Baltimore, Maryland, on October 25, 1806. He was buried at the family burial ground near his house.