Thomas Fuller

An African mathematician in the early 1700's

Charles Reason, African American mathematician in 1850

Kelly Miller, first Black graduate student

A Contemporary History of Blacks in Mathematics


Banneker Almanac

Banneker Biography

letters of corrections to the biography

Banneker Societies

Banneker's letter to and from Jefferson



{before taking this biography as the absolute truth, I suggest you read the letters of corrections to the biography}

Molly Walsh emigrated from England to the colony Maryland as an indentured slave in bondage for seven years. When her servitude ended, Molly purchased a farm along the Patapsco River near Baltimore. and two slaves. In time she set the slaves free and married one of them, a man named Bannaky (changed from Banna Ka). They had several children, one a daughter named Mary. Mary Bannaky grew up, purchased a slave, Robert, whom she later married and lived on the family farm. On Nov. 9, 1731, a son, Benjamin, was born to Robert and Mary Bannaky.

Using the Bible, Molly Bannaky taught Mary's children to read, and soon after, Benjamin would read the bible to his mother and grandmother. For those times, life was good to this little community, but work was hard, but not challenging to Benjamin. He learned to play the flute and the violin, and when a Quaker school opened in the valley, Benjamin attended it during the winter where he learned to write and elementary arithmetic. He had an eighth-grade education by time he was 15, at which time he took over the operations for the family farm. He devised an irrigation system of ditches and little dams to control the water from the springs (known around as Bannaky Springs) on the family farm. Their tobacco farm flourished even in times of drought.

Banneker became fascinated with the patent watch of a friend, Josef Levi. Levi gave Benjamin the watch and he took it apart to 'study its workings." Banneker then carved similar watch pieces out of wood to make, in1752, a wooden clock. Due to its precision (it struck every hour, on the hour, and continued to do so nearly forty years) the clock brought fame to young Banneker. Thus he began a watch and clock repair business. Further, he helped another famous Marylander, the industrialist Joseph Ellicott, to build a complex clock. Banneker and the Ellicott brothers became friends.

Joseph Ellicott was an amateur mathematician and astronomer and lent Banneker books on astronomy and mathematics as well as instruments for observing the stars. Banneker taught himself astronomy and advanced mathematics and, in 1773, he began to devote serious attention to both subjects. He successfully predicted the solar eclipse that occurred on April 14, 1789, contradicting the forecasts of prominent mathematicians and astronomers of the day.

Banneker's habits of study appear odd to the non-scientist. It is said that on many nights, he would wrap himself in a great cloak and lie under a pear tree and meditate on the revolutions of the heavenly bodies. He would remain there throughout the night and take to his bed at dawn.

As reported in the Georgetown Weekly Ledger March 12, 1791, when Banneker was 60, he was appointed, by President George Washington, to a three man team of surveyors headed by Major Andrew Ellicott, Joseph's cousin, to survey the future District of Columbia. Banneker, the paper said, was "an Ethiopian whose abilities as surveyor and astronomer already prove that Mr. [Thomas] Jefferson's concluding that that race of men were void of mental endowment was without foundation."

Banneker and Ellicott worked closely with Pierre L'Enfant, the architect in charge. However, L'Enfant could not control his temper and was fired. He left, taking all the plans with him. But Banneker saved the day by recreating the plans from memory.

Also in 1791, Banneker created and published his acclaimed Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland, and Almanac and Ephemeris. In 1792 Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, white supremacist, and slave owner pronounced Blacks mathematically inferior. In response to Jefferson, Benjamin Banneker sent a copy of his almanac along with a twelve page twelve page letter to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson requesting aid in improving the lot of American Blacks.

Banneker's Almanac's were compared favorable with Benjamin Franklin's Poor Richards's Almanac. However, in 1802 he stopped publishing his Almanac due to poor sales.

Banneker lived for four years after his almanacs discontinued. He published a treatise on bees, did a mathematical study on the cycle of the seventeen-year locust, and became a pamphleteer for the anti-slavery movement. He continued scientific studies by night and walked his land by day. He also continued to keep his garden. He hosted many distinguished scientists and artists of his day, and his visitors commented on his intelligence and on his knowledge of everything of importance that was happening in the country. As always, he remained precise and reflective in his conversations with others. His last walk (with a friend) came on October 9, 1806, he complained of being ill and went home to rest on his couch. He died later that day.

The material garnered for this web page came form several books; however, it appears that we are in the middle of a debate.

Note: Below are letters I received from scholars, I am most thankful of their input into this web page.

Letters of correction

Letter 1

Much of the [Benjamin Banneker] information you have seems to be part of the legends rather than the facts about Banneker. I will just give you one or two examples:

  1. There is no record that Banneker received and 8th grade education. He more likely recieved a "rudimentary elementary education" as Bedini states.
  2. There is no record of a Josef Levi connected to the watch Banneker "borrowed." and used to design his wooden clock.
  3. There is no evidence that Banneker helped Joseph Ellicott make the famous clock which is housed at the Smithsonia.. Ellicott made it in Pennsylvania before he moved to Ellicott Mills where through his nephew he met Banneker. According to Bedini they had not other relationship other than seeing the clock.
  4. George Ellicott was the person with whom Banneker had a ongoing relationship through the shairng of books and instruments.
  5. Banneker did not work with L'Enfant. Banneker returned home in April 1791. L'Enfant was appointed in March 1791 to a very different job and worked at that job until March 1792. They would never have met and Bannaker would never have seen L'Enfant's plans which were, according to him, still incomplete in 1792.
  6. L'Enfant still has the plans and lived just outside Washington until he died in 1825. He is (now) buried at Arlington Cemetary but refused an appointment as professor at West Point.

Letter 2

Your Thomas Jefferson quote about the inferiority of Blacks is accurate in content, but not in source. It does not come from 1792 when he was Secretary of State. It is a written quote from his "Notes on the State of Virginia" which was published in 1781 and 1782. Specifically this quote can be found in Query 14 of those notes. You can find the document at the University of Virginia's on-line archives [], if you like.

Thus your statement that Benjamin Banneker's famous letter to Jefferson was specifically in response to this quote from Jefferson is also not correct. Banneker's letter was sent in 1791, about 10 years after Jefferson wrote those words.

Banneker Almanac

Banneker Biography

letters of corrections to the biography

Banneker Societies

Banneker's letter to and from Jefferson



Banneker's almanac



from Banneker's letter to Jefferson

"I AM fully sensible of the greatness of that freedom, which I take with you on the present occasion ; a liberty which seemed to me scarcely allowable, when I reflected on that distinguished and dignified station in which you stand, and the almost general prejudice and prepossession, which is so prevalent in the world against those of my complexion.

I suppose it is a truth too well attested to you, to need a proof here, that we are a race of beings, who have long labored under the abuse and censure of the world ; that we have long been looked upon with an eye of contempt ; and that we have long been considered rather as brutish than human, and scarcely capable of mental endowments.

Sir, I hope I may safely admit, in consequence of that report which hath reached me, that you are a man far less inflexible in sentiments of this nature, than many others ; that you are measurably friendly, and well disposed towards us ; and that you are willing and ready to lend your aid and assistance to our relief, from those many distresses, and numerous calamities, to which we are reduced. Now Sir, if this is founded in truth, I apprehend you will embrace every opportunity, to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions, which so generally prevails with respect to us ; and that your sentiments are concurrent with mine, which are, that one universal Father hath given being to us all ; and that he hath not only made us all of one flesh, but that he hath also, without partiality, afforded us all the same sensations and endowed us all with the same faculties ; and that however variable we may be in society or religion, however diversified in situation or color, we are all of the same family, and stand in the same relation to him.

Sir, if these are sentiments of which you are fully persuaded, I hope you cannot but acknowledge, that it is the indispensable duty of those, who maintain for themselves the rights of human nature, and who possess the obligations of Christianity, to extend their power and influence to the relief of every part of the human race, from whatever burden or oppression they may unjustly labor under ; and this, I apprehend, a full conviction of the truth and obligation of these principles should lead all to. Sir, I have long been convinced, that if your love for yourselves, and for those inestimable laws, which preserved to you the rights of human nature, was founded on sincerity, you could not but be solicitous, that every individual, of whatever rank or distinction, might with you equally enjoy the blessings thereof ; neither could you rest satisfied short of the most active effusion of your exertions, in order to their promotion from any state of degradation, to which the unjustifiable cruelty and barbarism of men may have reduced them.

Sir, I freely and cheerfully acknowledge, that I am of the African race, and in that color which is natural to them of the deepest dye ; and it is under a sense of the most profound gratitude to the Supreme Ruler of the Universe, that I now confess to you, that I am not under that state of tyrannical thraldom, and inhuman captivity, to which too many of my brethren are doomed, but that I have abundantly tasted of the fruition of those blessings, which proceed from that free and unequalled liberty with which you are favored ; and which, I hope, you will willingly allow you have mercifully received, from the immediate hand of that Being, from whom proceedeth every good and perfect Gift.

Sir, suffer me to recal to your mind that time, in which the arms and tyranny of the British crown were exerted, with every powerful effort, in order to reduce you to a state of servitude : look back, I entreat you, on the variety of dangers to which you were exposed ; reflect on that time, in which every human aid appeared unavailable, and in which even hope and fortitude wore the aspect of inability to the conflict, and you cannot but be led to a serious and grateful sense of your miraculous and providential preservation ; you cannot but acknowledge, that the present freedom and tranquility which you enjoy you have mercifully received, and that it is the peculiar blessing of Heaven.

This, Sir, was a time when you cleary saw into the injustice of a state of slavery, and in which you had just apprehensions of the horrors of its condition. It was now that your abhorrence thereof was so excited, that you publicly held forth this true and invaluable doctrine, which is worthy to be recorded and remembered in all succeeding ages : ``We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal ; that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, and that among these are, life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.'' Here was a time, in which your tender feelings for yourselves had engaged you thus to declare, you were then impressed with proper ideas of the great violation of liberty, and the free possession of those blessings, to which you were entitled by nature ; but, 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.

I suppose that your knowledge of the situation of my brethren, is too extensive to need a recital here ; neither shall I presume to prescribe methods by which they may be relieved, otherwise than by recommending to you and all others, to wean yourselves from those narrow prejudices which you have imbibed with respect to them, and as Job proposed to his friends, ``put your soul in their souls' stead ;'' thus shall your hearts be enlarged with kindness and benevolence towards them ; and thus shall you need neither the direction of myself or others, in what manner to proceed herein. And now, Sir, although my sympathy and affection for my brethren hath caused my enlargement thus far, I ardently hope, that your candor and generosity will plead with you in my behalf, when I make known to you, that it was not originally my design ; but having taken up my pen in order to direct to you, as a present, a copy of an Almanac, which I have calculated for the succeeding year, I was unexpectedly and unavoidably led thereto."

 Jefferson's response to Banneker

Philadelphia Aug. 30. 1791.


I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th. instant and for the Almanac it contained. no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, & that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & America. I can add with truth that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced for raising the condition both of their body & mind to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecillity of their present existence, and other circumstance which cannot be neglected, will admit. I have taken the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet, Secretary of the Academy of sciences at Paris, and member of the Philanthropic society because I considered it as a document to which your whole colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them. I am with great esteem, Sir, Your most obedt. humble servt. Th. Jefferson



Banneker Almanac

Banneker Biography

letters of corrections to the biography

Banneker Societies

Banneker's letter to and from Jefferson


Contact Benjamin Banneker Association | Benjamin Banneker Network (gone)

references: [Bedini], [Bennett], [Newell], [Quarles], [Lumpkin], Library of Congress, letter from Florence D. Fasanelli.


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