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Meet the black teacherswho spread the gift of knowledge—from the early years to modern timesBenjamin BannekerMary McLeod Bethune Francis Louis Cardozo Peter Humphries ClarkDaniel Coker Marva Delores CollinsJames P. Comer, M.D.Sarah Mapps Douglass W. E. B. Du BoisCatherine (Katy) Ferguson Charlotte Forten Grimké William Leo Hansberry Patrick Francis HealyMozell Clarence HillJohn Hope Mae Carol Jemison, M.D. Mordecai Wyatt JohnsonRobert Russa Moton Mary Smith Peake Susie King TaylorMary Church Terrell James Milton ...
Meet the black teacherswho spread the gift of knowledge—from the early years to modern timesBenjamin BannekerMary McLeod Bethune Francis Louis Cardozo Peter Humphries ClarkDaniel Coker Marva Delores CollinsJames P. Comer, M.D.Sarah Mapps Douglass W. E. B. Du BoisCatherine (Katy) Ferguson Charlotte Forten Grimké William Leo Hansberry Patrick Francis HealyMozell Clarence HillJohn Hope Mae Carol Jemison, M.D. Mordecai Wyatt JohnsonRobert Russa Moton Mary Smith Peake Susie King TaylorMary Church Terrell James Milton Turner Alexander Lucius TwilightBooker T. WashingtonCarter G. Woodson.
In the decades before the Revolutionary War, which resulted in the founding of the United States, it was widely believed that black people were incapable of intellectual achievement.
Slavery and racial discrimination were justified by the argument that black people were no more capable of learning than were animals such as horses and cows.
Then along came a man who challenged these assumptions "with the fire of his intellect," one nineteenth-century historian declared, forcing Thomas Jefferson and others to question their belief in black inferiority. 1
The man's name was Benjamin Banneker, and there is probably no better example of the desire to learn and to teach others than that shown by him throughout his life.
Banneker was not a teacher in the usual sense, with a classroom full of students. Instead, he taught mathematics, astronomy, history, and other subjects by publishing his knowledge in pamphlets that came out once a year.
Born to free black parents, Mary and Robert Banneker, on a farm near the Patapsco River in Baltimore County, Maryland, Benjamin Banneker had deep roots on two continents and a deep understanding of the meaning of freedom.
Benjamin had an English grandmother, Molly Welsh. In about 1683 she had been found guilty of stealing milk from a farmer. In fact, she had accidentally knocked over a pail of milk, but the mistake was costly. Molly was shipped to the American colonies as an indentured servant to pay for her crime.
After toiling for seven years on a tobacco plantation in Maryland, Molly had earned her freedom. She then bought a small farm and two slaves. One of the slaves was a man named Bannka or Banneka, who said he was the son of an African chieftain.
Within three years, Molly freed Bannka. In spite of strict laws against interracial marriages, Molly and Bannka married and had a daughter, Mary Banneky (" daughter of Bannka or Banneka"). The name was later changed to Banneker.
When Mary fell in love with a slave named Robert, her parents bought his freedom so the young couple could marry. Having no surname, Robert took his wife's family name as his own. Benjamin was the first of the four children they would have.
Benjamin's first teacher was his grandmother, Molly. She taught him to read and write by using a Bible she had imported from England. Benjamin's mind was sharp, and he soon learned all that Molly had to teach, so she sent him to a one-room school near her farm.
As he grew older, Benjamin had to work full time on his father's farm, but he continued to educate himself for the rest of his life. Few books were available at the time (Benjamin could not afford a book of his own until he was thirty-two years old), but he managed to borrow books and teach himself literature, history, and mathematics. He was so good at mathematics that visitors came from far away with practical problems or brain-teasing puzzles for him to solve.
At age twenty-two, Banneker built a striking clock without ever having seen one. First, he studied the workings of a small watch, then used a pocket knife to carve each part of his clock from wood he had collected and carefully seasoned. He used metal parts only where they were absolutely needed. It was the first clock of its kind in the Maryland region.
Banneker enjoyed the mathematical challenge of calculating the proper ratio of the many gears, wheels, and other parts, then fitting them together to move in harmony. His clock operated for more than forty years, striking the hours of six and twelve. Visitors came from miles around to see the amazing achievement of this self-taught man.
One day, a friendly Quaker neighbor named George Ellicott lent Banneker a telescope, some other instruments, and several books on astronomy. From that moment on, the study of astronomy dominated Banneker's life. He often spent entire nights studying the stars, after working all day on the farm. Eventually, the Ellicott family bought part of Banneker's farm. They agreed to pay him enough money each year to live on, and thus enabled him to spend the last sixteen years of his life studying astronomy full time.
DIVING INTO BOOKS
Benjamin Banneker went to a school that accepted both black and white students. It was open only during the winter months, when the children did not have to work on their parents' farms. The few years Benjamin spent there constituted the only formal education he ever received. Jacob Hall, one of Banneker's black classmates, said Benjamin showed little interest in fun and games. Instead, Hall recalled, "all his delight was to dive into his books." 2
Banneker's studies progressed rapidly, and he began making all the calculations necessary for an almanac for the Delaware, Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia regions. But his work was suddenly interrupted by a request from his neighbor, George Ellicott, to help survey a 10-square-mile area known as the Federal Territory (now Washington, D. C.). Congress had decided to build a new national capital there, and one of George Ellicott's cousins, Major Andrew Ellicott, was appointed by President George Washington to head the survey.
So it was that Banneker, at age sixty, was hired by Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson and spent several months in 1791 helping to lay out the capital. Thomas Jefferson had earlier claimed that black people lacked intellectual skills, and the arrival of Banneker as a member of the surveying team led to the following comment in the Georgetown Weekly Ledger:
"Some time last month arrived in this town Mr. Andrew Ellicott [sic] . . . He is attended by Benjamin Banniker [sic], an Ethiopian, whose abilities, as a surveyor, and an astronomer, clearly prove that Mr. Jefferson's concluding that race of men were void of mental endowments, was without foundation." 3
Banneker spent several months making and recording astronomical observations, maintaining the field astronomical clock, and compiling other data required by Ellicott. This work made him more interested than ever in astronomy, and when he returned home, he spent countless nighttime hours at his telescope. And on many nights, instead of using the telescope, the old man wrapped himself in a blanket and lay in a field watching the stars until dawn.
During the day, he worked at astronomical calculations for each day of the coming year (1792), and completed the calculations in just a few weeks. At last he was ready to publish his precious almanac.
With the help of the abolition societies, the almanac--Benjamin Banneker's Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris, for the Year of Our Lord, 1792; Being Bissextile, or Leap-Year, and the Sixteenth Year of American Independence, which commenced July 4, 1776 was published in Baltimore and was a huge success.
Many colonists owned Bibles, but an almanac was usually the only other book in their homes. An almanac contained a calendar with astronomical information about each day, such as the rising and setting of the sun and the moon, phases of the moon, positions of the planets, and other observations about nature.
This information was especially prized at a time when most Americans made their living from farming. They used the observations to try to determine the best time to plant and harvest their crops.
The first almanac sold in great numbers, and Banneker published one every year for the next four years. The almanacs brought him international fame. He used that fame to prove that African Americans were as capable as anyone of learning and teaching.
He sent a copy of his almanac to Thomas Jefferson, who was a slave owner, along with a letter denouncing slavery and pointing out "that one universal Father hath . . . endued us all with the same faculties . . ."4
Jefferson, apparently moved by Banneker's arguments against slavery and impressed by the almanac, sent a copy of it to his friend the Marquis de Condorcet, secretary of the Academy of Sciences in Paris. Jefferson wrote, "I am happy to inform you that we have now in the United States a negro . . . who is a very respectable mathematician." 5
Rarely leaving the farm where he was born, Benjamin Banneker used the power of his mind to discover things and give useful, accurate information to others throughout the almost seventy-five years of his life. Banneker continued to make his beloved calculations until a few months before his death on October 9, 1806.