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August 20, 2013


Benjamin Banneker was a black freeman whose life spanned the formative years of the American republic, 1731 through 1806. He is best known for his work as a surveyor and author of a series of almanacs based on his research as an astronomer.
Benjamin Banneker's facial
features betray his
white ancestry.

On August 19, 1791 Banneker submitted a letter to then Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson in which he openly admitted that "those of my complexion ... have long been looked upon with an eye of contempt ; and that we have long been considered rather as brutish than human, and scarcely capable of mental endowments."

Banneker bluntly challenged Jefferson's hypocrisy in espousing liberty while holding slaves. He contended that blacks possessed the "same faculties" as others, presumed to be a reference to intelligence.

Banneker's complaints to Jefferson were not without merit. The author of the words "all men are created equal" held a number of slaves whose station in life were, quite obviously, not equal to his own. Banneker's privileged position as a close friend of the successful Ellicott brothers, however, could also be cited as privileged inequality and hypocritical when compared to other black freemen.

While Jefferson accommodated Banneker with an exchange of correspondence, he ultimately concluded that the black surveyor and astronomer was no genius, but possessed "a mind of very common stature indeed." That conclusion was drawn after reading a letter personally penned by Banneker. Jefferson attributed Banneker's brilliance largely to his close white friend, "Ellicott," apparently referencing Andrew Ellicott one of three enterprising brothers. The family is noted for their surveying work that include the District of Columbia.

In other words, Banneker's letter to Jefferson as well as his almanacs were almost certainly the works, in whole or in part, of Andrew Ellicott. Suspicion is further raised by Banneker's concluding comment in the letter in which he wrote, "but that you might also view it in my own hand writing." He apparently presumed Jefferson would detect fraudulence and question the authenticity of the letter's authorship. Why else would he find it necessary to note that he, personally, wrote the letter? The words, however, were likely dictated by or copied from Ellicott.

The use of a ghost writer is not necessarily dishonest, particularly if the thoughts expressed are those of the originator. Taking credit for the actual writing, however, is questionable at best.

Banneker's mechanical skills -- he is known for having crafted a working clock made from scale of a pocket watch -- may also be attributed to Ellicott who was well known for his mechanical acumen.

That's not to say that Banneker was without talent or that his works were entirely fraudulent, it is to suggest that his writings - particularly his noted letter to Jefferson - were written by Ellicott.

Banneker's contribution to the founding of the nation should be neither underestimated nor overestimated, but viewed objectively.

Time and age alienated Banneker from the Ellicotts and, without their support, he found himself languishing in poverty and alcoholism. He died at the age of 75 while living in a humble log cabin in spite of the commercial success of his almanacs and farm. Banneker never married, but there is absolutely no evidence that he maintained a homosexual relationship with Andrew Ellicott who was married and fathered ten children.

• Banneker's background

Banneker's father was an African but his mother was half white, the daughter of indentured servant, Molly Welsh. Although his European ancestry is contested by some historians, Banneker's portrait betrays Caucasian genetics in his facial features. His interest in astronomy was apparently acquired from Welsh and her black husband.

While Banneker's brilliance is challenged, his accommodation by the white elite of his era is not. As a child he was befriended by the adamant anti-slavery Quakers and his white Quaker friend, Peter Heinrichs, is credited with providing Banneker a limited formal education.

Banneker's status as a landowner and his acceptance by white elitists challenges the revisionist perception that black Americans have always been excluded from white culture. In fact, Banneker's grandmother, Molly, is said to have freed her black slave, Banneka, and married him. The thought of an inter-racial couple - a former indentured servant married to a former slave - is anathema to the narrative of America's racist lore as presented by historians, particularly considering the family was accepted as both landowners and slave holders.

The conclusion is that Benjamin Banneker was a free black man who socially interacted with the white elite, accepted by both George Washington and Thomas Jefferson. He voiced his opposition to slavery in keeping with his Quaker upbringing, but his writings - particularly his lengthy letter written to Jefferson - were almost certainly ghost written by Andrew Ellicott.

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5 comments:

  1. This piece is so full of bad information and nonsense it's not even funny. You write:

    *** Jefferson attributed Banneker's brilliance largely to his close white friend, "Ellicott," apparently referencing Andrew Ellicott one of three enterprising brothers. The family is noted for their surveying work that include the District of Columbia.

    In other words, Banneker's letter to Jefferson as well as his almanacs were almost certainly the works, in whole or in part, of Andrew Ellicott. Suspicion is further raised by Banneker's concluding comment in the letter in which he wrote, "but that you might also view it in my own hand writing." He apparently presumed Jefferson would detect fraudulence and question the authenticity of the letter's authorship. Why else would he find it necessary to note that he, personally, wrote the letter? The words, however, were likely dictated by or copied from Ellicott.***

    Do you not grasp why Jefferson's implication is racist or how it is in keeping with his general discourse on Africans, black people, and non-whites in general (see his comments on enslaved blacks and on Phillis Wheatley, Native Americans, etc.)? Do you not realize there is a long history of whites questioning black intelligence, authorship, and so forth? Is there a reason why you fail to mention any of Banneker's achievements having ZERO to do with the Ellicotts, such as his creation of the first working handmade clock in the North American British colonies, or his wheat field that saved the Revolutionary troops in Maryland, or his beekeeping prowess, or his substantial meditations, in letter form, on segregation, etc.?

    Seriously, have you read Silvio Bedini's biography, or any of Banneker's papers? It's clear you haven't. Please do so and then revise this entry, which turns up far too high on Google's search engine.

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  2. Thank you Anonymous. It's almost comical but not unexpected that ANY achievements by Blacks in American history seems to have its legitimacy challenged.

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  3. People are just silly. The whole Black / White concept has been challenged, thoroughly, by DNA. If the original Homo-Sapien is a Black man of 5'8", as is now scientifically believed, why would it not be possible for a Black man to continue to invent, and inspire? Why could Banneker not inspire his white friends as opposed to the other way around? There is a such thing as Black people who are geniuses, or do you doubt that too? Your comment that Banneker did not calculate the figures in his almanac, or write a basic letter is just insane.

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  4. All I learned when reading this repulsive piece is that the writer is an outright racist. You are disgusting. I feel sorry for you.

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  5. Informative and inflammatory. Too bad you are white and not allowed to have a perspective. I don't believe the white dude (Ellicott) would give credit to even a great friend. A clock was/is a very complicated device to reproduce. It may have taken years. But I'm white too so I guess my opinion doesn't matter either. Oh yeah. It does.

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