Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker (1731-1806) was an African-American mathematician, surveyor, astronomer, and publisher of a popular almanac. Banneker wrote a now-famous letter to Thomas Jefferson on August 19, 1791, arguing eloquently that "...however variable we may be in Society or religion, however diversifyed in Situation or colour, we are all of the Same Family, and Stand in the Same relation to him [God]."[1]

In his reply to Banneker on August 30, Jefferson wrote,

No body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, the nature has given to our black bretheren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, and that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence bot in Africa and America...I have taken the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet...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.[2] 

The same day, Jefferson wrote to the Marquis de Condorcet:

I am happy to be able to inform you that we have now in the United States a negro, the son of a black man born in Africa, and of a black woman born in the United States, who is a very respectable Mathematician. I procured him to be employed under one of our chief directors in laying out the new federal city on the Patowmac, and in the intervals of his leisure, while on that work, he made an Almanac for the next year, which he sent me in his own handwriting, and which I inclose to you. I have seen very elegant solutions of Geometrical problems by him. Add to this that he is a very worthy and respectable member of society. He is a free man.[3]

Further Sources

  • Baker, Henry E. "'Benjamin Banneker, the Negro Mathematician and Astronomer." Journal of Negro History 3 (1918): 98-118.
  • Bedini, Silvio. The Life of Benjamin Banneker. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons, 1971.
  • ---. "The Survey of the Federal Territory: Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker." Washington History 3(1991): 76-95.
  • PTJ, 19:41-43. Footnote 119 to the editorial note to the document collection, "Locating the Federal District," discusses Banneker's involvement with this project.
  • PTJ, 22:52-54. An extensive editorial note to Banneker's 1791 letter provides some biographical information and an overview of Banneker's exchange with Jefferson.

 

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