"A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth." -- John Singer Sargent

Thursday, February 18, 2021

Benjamin Banneker

This 1943 mural of  “Benjamin Banneker: Surveyor-Inventor-Astronomer” by Maxime Seelbinder, is located at the Recorder of Deeds building on D Street, NW, in Washington, DC. Photo by Carol Highsmith.

Louis Keene writing for  the Whitehouse Historical Association, in Benjamin Banneker The Black Tobacco Farmer Who The Presidents Couldn't Ignore, says this about Banneker:
In many ways, his story is an historical anomaly. He assisted with the initial survey of Washington, D.C., published abolitionist material south of the Mason-Dixon Line, and engaged with some of the country’s founders in a way no black man had before. However, Banneker’s life also reflects the defining paradox of the early United States —a land of freedom and opportunity with insurmountable racial qualifiers— which the nation’s capital would come to embody.

The style of this portrayal emphasizes the almost mythical stature Benjamin Banneker has taken on. Louis Keene continues:
Perhaps owing to the scarcity of recorded fact about his remarkable life, and because he was often invoked symbolically to advance social causes like abolition, Banneker’s story has been susceptible to mythmaking. He has been incorrectly credited with drawing the street grid of Washington, D.C., making the first clock on the Eastern seaboard, being the first professional astronomer in America, and discovering the seventeen-year birth cycle of cicadas. With little documentation regarding enslaved people and the lives they lived, and only slightly more about free African Americans in early Washington, Banneker stands out for a number of reasons, not the least of which are his encounters with the nation’s most well-known historical figures. Inevitably, Banneker— the man and the myth—has come to represent the talents and personalities of millions of other African Americans whose lives history failed to preserve.
 Banneker appears in Seelbinder's mural as a young man with the surveying equipment he would have used surveying the boundaries of the District of Columbia. He was actually 60 years old at the time. 

We have no truly reliable images of Banneker. The nearest we can come to a contemporary likeness is this image from the cover of his 1795 Almanac.

A colored version, which appears in various places on the web, even shows the gray hair he must have had in 1795.


In his youth, Banneker created a wooden chiming clock based on the pattern of a borrowed pocket watch. An enormous accomplishment in the back woods of Maryland at the time, although it was not the first American-made clock. Keene remarks that “There would not have been many clocks in rural Maryland in the mid-eighteenth century, and Banneker’s was later referred to as ‘one of the curiosities of the wild region.’”

John Hix' 1938 cartoon "Strange as it Seems" recounts this event, and gives us another portrait of Banneker.

Charles Alston, working for the Office of War Information in 1943, the same year as Seelbinder's Mural,  offers another heroic portrait of Banneker.

And Alson also tells the clock story, emphasizing the use of a pocket-knife rather than the degree of understanding required to build a clock and similarly claiming it to be the first clock made in America.

Alston next tells the story of Banneker's 1793 advocacy of a Department  of Peace in the US Government. An ideas that seemed current in 1943.

And finally, he tells of Banneker's participation in Ellicott's survey of the boundaries of DC.

In Seelbinder's mural Banneker is shown meeting with the DC Commissioners .

Tyson in her 1854 pamphlet A sketch of the life of Benjamin Banneker; from notes taken in 1836 describes Banneker's relationship with the Commissioners:
Banneker was but once absent, at any distance, from his domicil. An appointment having been made after the adoption of the Constitution, in 1789, of commissioners, to run the lines of the District of Columbia —then called the "Federal Territory," they wished to avail themselves of his talents, induced him to accompany them in the work, and retained him with them until the service was completed. Banneker's deportment throughout the whole of this engagement, secured their respect, and there is good authority for believing, that his endowments led the commissioners to overlook the color of his skin, to converse with him freely, and enjoy the clearness and originality of his remarks on various subjects. It is a fact, that they honored him with an invitation to a daily seat at their table; but this, with his usual modesty, he declined. 
An historical marker shows Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker at work on the survey.

Back in 2008 this design was in the running for the DC “State” Quarter:

This bust of Banneker by Dr. Bernard McGibbon can be seen in the Museum at Benjamin Banneker Park in Oella.

Benjamin Bannerer (1731-1806) Baltimore County, Md 
Free Black, Scientist And Mathematician, Author
Fired Clay with Oil Finish and Glaze 

Artist Interpretation, 2014, No Known Official Image Exists
Benjamin Banneker, recognized as the first African American man of science, was born in Baltimore County in 1731 and became joint owner of this site in 1737. As a scientist and mathematician, he made many accomplishments that include the survey of the United States federal territory and authorship of six almanacs, He also lent his notability to the campaign for freedom and equality for all by writing a letter to Thomas Jefferson, then secretary of state, on August 17, 1791. In his letter to Jefferson, Banneker reasserted the founding principles of the nation thus bringing attention to the hypocrisy of slaveholding in the land of liberty.
Benjamin Banneker died in October of 1806 and was buried somewhere on his farm in Oella. This monument on the grounds of Mount Gilboa AME Church in Oella is a close to a headstone as we can find.

1731 - 1806

Buried in a unmarked grave near here lies the
remains of Benjamin Banneker, distinguished son
of Maryland, who was born, lived and died in this area
   Erected in memoriam by the Maryland
Bicentennial Commission and the State Commission
of Afro-American History and Culture    1977


No comments:

Post a Comment