Benjamin Banneker (sometimes spelled Bannaker) (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, that nature has given to our black brethren, 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 both 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
PTJ, 19:41-43n119. Editorial Note: Locating the Federal District. See footnote 119 for a discussion of Banneker's involvement with this project. Editorial note available at Founders Online.
PTJ, 22:52-54. An extensive editorial note to Banneker's 1791 letter provides biographical information and an overview of Banneker's exchange with Jefferson. Editorial note available at Founders Online.
1. Banneker to Jefferson, August 19, 1791, in PTJ, 22:50. Transcription available at Founders Online.
2. Jefferson to Banneker, August 30, 1791, in PTJ, 22:97-98. Transcription available at Founders Online.
3. Jefferson to Condorcet, August 30, 1791, in PTJ, 22:98-99. Transcription available at Founders Online.