A Man of Many Firsts

WIC/BIG's Benjamin Banneker's Birthday Celebration

November 9, 2004 - Delivered by Peggy C. Seats, WIC Founder/CEO

 

 

GSA Administrator, Mr. Stephen Perry , BIG Benjamin Banneker Chapter President, Mr. Don Smith , my BIG Chapter President [the Parklawn Chapter ], Dr. Patrick Wilson , Honored Guests, Ladies and Gentlemen good afternoon, and thank you for coming out today to help us celebrate the birthday of one of America's most unsung heroes, the Venerable Mr. Banneker .

 

Thank you Renita. I'd like to start off by adding a tad more about myself. I was born in Alabama , left there as a child to migrate in the early fifties to Chicago . Each and every day of my life, I smile and reflect back on the role of the stars in the course of my comings and goings. From age 10-13, I returned to stay with my grandparents in Alabama . At night we would sit out on the porch. The children, adults and the elders, Aunts and Uncles too, would tell us children stories and we would star gaze. My grandfather would identify the little dipper, the big dipper, big bear and other constellations. Those were wonderful memories.

 

Little did I know at the time, that the Black man who was America 's most notable star gazer was a man named Benjamin Banneker. As you all well know, he was America's First Black Man of Science . Yet, he was so much more than that. He was A Man of Many Firsts . And that is the topic of my talk today - A Man of Many Firsts . As a pioneering spirit, one accolade was, and is, not enough for a man of Banneker's ilk. He is also known as The Sable Genius and I defer to him as the Renaissance Genius too, because he was a master of such an wide array of complex and varied disciplines.

 

It gives me great pleasure to have the opportunity to be asked to join in on paying homage to one of my favorite persons. I'm sure that his spirit is walking among us now playing his violin or flute while doing the cake walk, or whatever was the fashionable two-step of his day and time over two centuries ago.

 

On November 9, 1731 a male child entered the world destined for greatness, a person who would go out into the world to become a man among men. On that day, a genius was born, but not just any genius, but a genius among geniuses. A humble man, a spiritual man, a curious man, a selfless man, a rational man, a man of great character and charisma, Benjamin Banneker was perhaps the greatest diplomat of his day. For he managed to successfully navigate his way within the circles of the greatest American minds of his time while earning the deference commonly made to him as The Venerable Mr. Banneker. This was yet another accolade bestowed upon Banneker by men who considered people of his ethnic ilk less than human, and treated them accordingly, if not worst than chattel. And that's perhaps the hardest challenge in telling the Benjamin Banneker story - trying to get people to juxtapose the social and political climate of early colonial times, the 1700's, viz-a-viz today's social norms. But, this is very critical when you talk about and research Banneker. You have to put into context the proper anachronistic pretext of his life and times in order to have a greater appreciation of him and his contributions to us; and when I say "us," I mean everyone here in America .

 

The fact of the matter is, it is very necessary to at least attempt to make an effort to catapult oneself back in time, to a time when America was but a wilderness and a country on the verge of an explosive political awakening struggling to figure out a way to find its way clear from the growing tyrannical forces of its Motherland, England. The groundswell of discontent was looming large on the shores of America in the 18 th century; and the embroiling discontent that was on the horizon necessitated a need for America to break free from the umbilical cord of dependency and taxation that was imposed by England .

 

On the other hand, those once oppressed by the empirical domination of an oligarchic form of governance now sought to identify and exploit a source of free labor to help them to empower themselves towards not only their liberation from the impending forces of tyranny, but to provide the ways and means for achieving, in short order, the financial wherewithal to pursue their personal goals of freedom.

 

Slavery proved to be the answer to that end. Therefore, slaves from the massive continent of Africa were arriving on the shores of America [ Virginia and Maryland in particular] by the hundreds each and every day. As Mr. Banneker said in his famous letter to Thomas Jefferson, as he denounced the Declaration of Independence as being disingenuous, due to its lack of inclusiveness of African-Americans, [and this is in my best Banneker voice mind you] and I quote:

Sir, suffer me to recall 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 in 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.

 

With this letter Mr. Banneker enclosed a copy of his handwritten pre-sales edition of his famous debut almanac of 1792. His letter to then Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, was the very first publicly documented protest letter in the history of America .

 

I would like to devote the remainder of my talk to pointing out some of the other trailblazing areas of accomplishment and discourse in which Benjamin Banneker was the first American to explore. It is this colloquial salutation, A Man of Many Firsts, which the Washington Interdependence Council has adopted as its term of endearment when giving deference to Mr. Banneker; and one which we hope will give you greater reason to give pause to celebrate his birthday each and every year. For without his legacy we would not be enjoying the fruits of the America that we know, and cherish, today. Arguably, Benjamin Banneker is America's Most Unsung Hero .

 

Benjamin Banneker was the first child and only son born to Robert and Mary Banneka on November 9, 1731 in Paptasco County , MD , situated next door to what is now known as Ellicott City , MD. His home site is known today as Oella , MD. Early on in his life, his extraordinary genius was noticed as he would provide mathematical, letter writing and other functional business services to elders in his community. His precociousness as a sage and counselor was noticeably wise beyond his years.

 

Banneker first received wider acclaim outside of his immediate community however, at age 22, when he engineered the first American striking clock made entirely of indigenous parts. It is reported that by this time, Banneker had witnessed only one time instrument in his life - a watch that was lent to him by a new associate, Joseph Levi, whom he met during a business trip into Baltimore to sell tobacco. Here again, we must keep in mind that America was not yet even an independent state in 1753; and was but a wilderness. And, while in rare instances, more affluent residents had clocks, particularly what we commonly refer to today as Father Clocks, the exteriors of these clocks were made in America, but the internal mechanisms were generally imported from England, Germany and France. Pre-revolutionary America was a newly emerging country, yet to be officially established as a sovereign nation, and even pocket watches were a rare commodity.

 

Banneker was loaned the watch to take home with him for an unconfirmed period of time. He eventually dismantled the watch to study its parts. It was from this study that he crafted his clock with a pocket knife, and constructed it entirely of hard wood, pinions and a bell. It is documented that the clock struck every hour on the hour and was still working, over fifty years later, up until the time of his death. People would travel from far and near to witness his ingenious and fascinating clock. It was because of this clock that he would receive visits from regular folks and more prominent guests alike, people such as the wife of Virginia founding governor, Susanna Hopkins Mason, who would become one of his greatest admirers.

 

Although Banneker received public notoriety for engineering the first all American made striking clock, it was not his first trailblazing scientific achievement. For quite some time Banneker had gained a reputation as an enviable farmer. His main crop was tobacco, the second most profitable industry in America in the 18 th century, second only to slavery. It was through the sale of tobacco that his grandfather and grandmother had been able to purchase their farm, and the same held true for his parents, who saved and purchased what would eventually become Banneker's inherited 100+ acre farm, from the proceeds earned from the sale of tobacco. Banneker's personal crops of food staples -- fruit, and grains, such as wheat and corn, and beehives for honey were also lauded for their excellent quality, a feat that could probably be attributed to his study of bees and employment of water irrigation and crop rotation long before it became a common practice in American farm culture, as pointed out earlier by Mr. Perry in his presentation.

 

Although it seemed perfectly uneventful at the time, Benjamin Banneker was the first scientist to document the 17 year locust cycle. You undoubtedly noticed the influx of the rare invasion of the cicadas, as they are now commonly referred to, this past summer. Few people realize that it was Benjamin Banneker who first recorded this phenomenon. It was documented in his day journal in 1800 which read:

The first great locust year that I can remember was

I was then about seventeen years of age when

thousands of them came and was creeping up the

trees and bushes. I then imagined they came to eat

and destroy the fruit of the Earth, and would occasion

a famine in the land, I therefore began to kill and

destroy them, but soon saw that my labor was in

vain, therefore gave over my pretension. Again in the

year 1766, which is seventeen years after their first

appearance, they made a second, and appeared to

me to be full as numerous as the first. I then.....

 

He continued to note his subsequent observations every 17 years thereafter, in 1783 and he predicted the next in 1800, which proved out to be true.

 

I urge you to pay special attention to this if you would. Banneker recorded the first documented American hypothesis that perhaps salient beings existed on other planets. In his first almanac, worked on in 1791 and published in 1792, he speaks of extra solar planets. He states : "This sun, with all its attendant planets, is but a very little part of the grand machine of the universe; every star, though in appearance no bigger than the diamond that glitters upon a lady's ring, is really a vast globe, like the sun in size and glory; no less spacious, no less luminous, than the radiant source of the day; so that every star is not barely a world, but the centre of a magnificent system; and a retinue of worlds, irradiated by its beams, and revolving round its attractive influence, all of which are lost to our sight in unmeasurable wilds of ether."

 

Charles Cerami, in his book entitled Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor. Astronomer. Publisher. Patriot contends : "No leading astronomer up to Banneker's day - neither Copernicus, nor Galileo, nor any major scholar - had expressed definitive thoughts on what lay beyond our solar system." Banneker espoused the probability of intelligent life forms existing on those solar systems just as we exist on Earth. To give you an idea of how radical this hypothesis was, more than one and a half centuries had passed before this subject was broached upon again by the top scientists of our day . However, a sixteenth century monk, Giordano Bruno, had been killed by the Inquisition for challenging the church on this matter. It is suggested that Banneker's ancestry was probably Dogon rather Ethiopian, as had been presumed in the news article announcing his arrival, in 1791, to work on the nation's capitol. The Dogon people of Mali enjoy a legacy of having advanced astronomical knowledge predating Bruno by centuries. His father or perhaps his grandfather, in all probability, may have shared this knowledge with him, in concert with his own dedicated studies.

 

Banneker was also the first to document that a star named Sirius , also known as the Dog Star , is two stars rather than one. Banneker documented his theory in 1782, almost 100 years before it was mentioned by English astronomer John Goodriche, the Stephen Hawking's of his day, and over two hundred years prior to the advent of NASA's Hubble telescope in the 1990's, which confirmed his hypothesis.

 

Banneker was America 's first Black astronomer. It earned him his most notable acclaim, serving on the very first presidential appointed Commission charged with surveying and designing the nation's capitol. He worked as assistant to Geographer General , Major Andrew Ellicott, along with Commissioners Thomas Johnson, Daniel Carroll and Dr. David Stuart. The Commission reported directly to Thomas Jefferson and President George Washington.

 

Working with the American and French Abolitionist of his day, Banneker was America 's first Black Civil Rights Leader. As the first notable Black Abolitionist in the history of America , he preceded later Abolitionists such as Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman and Sojourner Truth by nearly a century. He was also the first African-American publisher of almanacs which were broadly published along the eastern seaboard states from 1792 until 1797, and enjoyed great success. They contained his own calculated ephermis projections, population statistics, essays, tide tables, homeopathic remedies, sermons, travel info, projected eclipses, currency conversion tables, government and Quaker meeting schedules, et al. invaluable info.

In his debut almanac of 1792 Banneker published an essay recommending the establishment of a cabinet devoted to peace initiatives. A Department of Peace; what a radical idea, huh? It was so radical, in fact, that it wasn't until nearly two centuries later that the U.S. Institute of Peace was established by Congressional authorization in 1984. They state on its current website at www.usip.org :

 

The first formal proposal for the establishment

of an official U.S. government peace institution

dates to 1792. The product of efforts by architect

and publisher Benjamin Banneker and physician

and educator Dr. Benjamin Rush. The proposal

called for establishing a "Peace Office" on equal

footing with the War Department-noting the

importance to the welfare of the United States

of "an office for promoting and preserving

perpetual peace in our country."

 

I had thought that I would have time to touch upon the metaphysical aspects of Banneker's work in helping to determine the lines of the nation's capitol, including the 16 th street Meridian and its spiritual influence, as well as the astronomical implications of the Dragon's Head configuration of the Federal Triangle; the carefully chosen astrological influences of Virgo and Cancer on the founding of nation's capitol; and Banneker's influence as Major Ellicott's Assistant in determining the placement of the White House , Capitol and Treasury , but that's a talk for another day.

 

In closing, I would like to leave you with a reading of the last stanza of a four stanza poem, or Ode to Benjamin Banneker , written in 1776 by Susanna Hopkins Mason , wife of Founding Virginia Governor, George Mason . This poem is quite prophetic, and we intend to have it inscribed on the pedestal base of Banneker's monument, along the L'Enfant Plaza promenade in southwest DC, and it reads:

 

On record now thy name's enrolled

And future ages will be told

There lived a man called Banneker

An African astronomer.

Thy need'st to have a special care

Thy conduct with thy talent square,

That no contaminating vice,

Obscure thy lustre in our eyes,

Or cast a shade upon thy merit

Or blast the praise thou mightst inherit

For folly in an orb so bright,

Will strike on each beholders sight;

Nay, stand exposed from age to age,

Extant on some historian's page.

Now as thy welfare I intend,

Observe my counsel as a friend.

Let fair example mark thy round

Unto thine orbit's upmost bound.

"The good man's path," the scriptures say,

"Shines more and more to perfect day."

HAPPY BIRTHDAY MR. BANNEKER! Thank you so much for inviting me to speak before you today. It has been an honor. God bless.

 



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