Have you ever been given a chore to do, but found yourself doing something very different to get through it? Sometimes, jobs you have to do can be a bit boring. But you can make them fun by playing little games while you do them. Maybe you arrange your shirts into the colors of the rainbow when you put them away, or pretend to play hockey while you sweep. Maybe you’ve even found better ways to do some of these things because you were “playing around” while you did them.
Benjamin Banneker was one of those kids who could turn any chore into a game, and those games often helped him learn something or make the task easier. Benjamin was born in 1731 in Maryland, before the United States was even a country. Back then, Maryland was still a colony of Great Britain. Benjamin was black, and most black people in the colonies at the time were enslaved. But luckily, Benjamin was born free. His grandmother, Molly, was a former indentured servant from England, who had married an enslaved man from Africa. An indentured servant was someone who works for someone in order to pay back money they borrowed. It was a lot like slavery, but after a set amount of time, you get to be free again. Molly’s daughter, Mary, was Benjamin’s mother and his father, Robert, was a freed slave.
There was one book in Benjamin’s house growing up: the Bible. Molly put that book to good use, and taught Benjamin and his sisters to read with it. Benjamin learned quickly. He became fascinated with numbers, noticing how the Psalms in the bible were numbered and learning to count without even trying. Soon, he was counting everything: fingers, toes, his siblings’ teeth.
He even used counting to make his chores more interesting. The Bannekers owned a tobacco farm. There are always jobs to do on a farm, and everyone had to help. Benjamin would count things while he went about his duties: clouds, pigs, slugs he picked off tobacco plants. Numbers and math just seemed to click with him. Benjamin not only taught himself basic arithmetic, but more advanced types of math, like geometry and statistics.
Benjamin didn’t just amuse himself with numbers though. He was curious about everything around him. He wondered about the stars, moon, and sun, how they moved and changed throughout the year. As he grew older, he became a tinkerer as well. When something was broken, he could always figure out how to fix it. Usually, he’d find a way to make it work better too!
When he was a young man, Benjamin inherited his parents’ farm. Although running a farm is a lot of work, Benjamin still found ways to improve things and make his job a little easier. At this time, most farmers relied on the rhythms of the natural world to tell them when to do things. Day and night, the position of the sun in the sky told them when to get up, do chores, eat meals, and go to bed. The weather, stars, and plants told them when to plow, plant crops, and harvest. But Benjamin thought it would be easier if he had a clock.
Clocks weren’t common back then. Almost no one had one in their house. Benjamin thought his tinkering skills might help though. He borrowed a friend’s pocket watch. This friend must have had a lot of confidence in Benjamin’s tinkering skills too, because Benjamin took the watch apart, carefully taking notes, measuring, and sketching gears as he did. When he was sure he knew how it worked, he began to cut and carve his own gears, axels, and pins. He made his version bigger–something that would sit on a table, rather than in your pocket. And, he added a bell on top that would strike on the hour. Clocks were so unusual that neighbors came by to marvel at it. In fact, Benjamin’s clock may have been the first one in the colonies!
When Benjamin was a young man, the Ellicott family moved in down the road from his farm. The Ellicotts were building a mill, and one day they came to ask Benjamin’s mother about buying supplies. At first, she was suspicious, because most well-off white people in the area owned slaves, but soon the Bannekers learned that the Ellicotts were Quakers, Christians who believed slavery was wrong. Benjamin soon befriended a member of the family, George Ellicott.
George and Benjamin had a lot in common. Both loved math and were curious about the world around them. They studied astronomy together, observing the stars through George’s telescope and learned the positions of the planets and constellations at different times of the year. George lent Benjamin books and tools to use in his studies. Soon, Benjamin was hard at work calculating when a solar eclipse would occur. He showed George his work. His calculations were very good, and George helped him refine them.
Benjamin enjoyed this hobby so much, he decided to do something big with it. He decided to write an almanac. Other than the bible, an almanac was the book you’d be most likely to find in a farmer’s home in the 18th century. Almanacs gathered a wealth of information that was important to a farmer: tables showing cycles of the moon, sun, and tides; calendars of when to plant different crops; weather predictions, and more. Benjamin got to work calculating the data he would need to include in his almanac for 1791: when the moon would wax and wane, sunrise and sunset times, high and low tides for every day of the year.
But sometimes, opportunities come up, and we have to take advantage right away, or lose the chance. Another member of the Ellicott family, Andrew, offered Benjamin a job helping to survey the land for the new United States capitol, Washington DC. A surveyor tries to figure out how things can be built on the land. They measure distances and slopes, make maps and find the best spot to build a new road or building. It’s a very math-heavy job, and Benjamin couldn’t refuse.
Benjamin worked on his almanac whenever he could. As 1790 came to an end, he still hadn’t found a publisher though, so he wouldn’t be able to put out the 1791 almanac in time. He had to start over and write a version for 1792. With the survey work over, Benjamin worked day and night on his almanac. A man from Pennsylvania named James Pemberton helped him find a publisher. This would not be easy, since many publishers didn’t think a book written by a black person would sell. But Pemberton was an anti-slavery activist, and commited to helping Benjamin overcome these challenges.
When he’d finished most of the almanac, Benjamin wrote to Thomas Jefferson, sending a copy of the book along too. Jefferson had written the United States Declaration of Independence, which contains the words “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, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Benjamin wanted to know how Jefferson could write those words, yet still hold captive “so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression.” Brethren means “brothers.” Benjamin was asking Jefferson how he could justify enslaving other people, people with skin like his. According to Jefferson’s words, these people had rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. At this time, Jefferson was Secretary of State, a high office in the US government. Benjamin would not have been surprised if Jefferson had ignored his letter. But Jefferson actually wrote back! He complimented him on his almanac and said he wished that someday slavery would end. While Benjamin was surprised that Jefferson wrote back at all, he may have wondered how he could hope for slavery to end, but not do anything to stop it.
In the meantime, Pemberton had found a publisher for the almanac, a man named William Goddard. Goddard promised to pay Benjamin generously, and advertised the work as “BENJAMIN BANNEKER’S highly Approved ALMANAC.” Benjamin had been studious in his calculations, and the book was deserving of approval. It contained calendars for planting crops, tables showing phases of the moon and other astronomical events, home remedies and herbal medicines.
Benjamin did not forget his brethren either, people like him who were forced to work and live as property of others. He included excerpts from powerful antislavery essays and speeches. He also included an essay by his friend Dr. Benjamin Rush that suggested a Peace Office in the United States government. Scattered throughout were meditations on how to live a good and just life. The almanac sold out quickly, and Benjamin published a new version each year until 1797.
By that time, Benjamin Banneker was an old man. He could look back on his long life and accomplishments with pride. But he never forgot that such accomplishments were out of reach for most black people in the United States. As a surveyor, almanac writer, and astronomer Benjamin used a lot of numbers and math in his work, but he also spoke out for what he believed in whenever he could. Benjamin valued freedom and fairness, and he knew that everyone had a responsibility to stand up for those values.
Benjamin passed away in 1806, at home in his log cabin. The clock he had built over fifty years before still chimed each hour, marking out his days–his rising, his work, his rest. A fire destroyed the cabin just days later, along with many of his papers, tools, and the clock. It would never ring out again. But nothing could silence the brave words and knowledge that Benjamin had sent out into the world. And even though slavery wouldn’t end for another 60 years, nothing could silence the voices of those speaking out for freedom and fairness.
Pinkney, Andrea Davis. (2012) Hand in Hand: Ten Black Men Who Changed America. Disney, New York.