Benjamin Banneker, the African-American Mathematician Who May Have Saved Washington, D.C.

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

 

Many people who have a passing familiarity with Washington, D.C. know it was originally styled after famous European locales by architect Pierre Charles L’Enfant, then completed by Andrew Ellicott after L’Enfant was given the boot in 1792. Too few tourists and history fans, however, know that the U.S. capital might have been a very different place if not for the surveying work of Benjamin Banneker—a highly accomplished mathematician, astronomer, and scholar who challenged Thomas Jefferson and his peers to recognize African-American achievement when it was right under their noses (and feet).

Benjamin Banneker was born November 9, 1731, in Baltimore County, Maryland, to Robert and Mary Banneker. While scholars still debate almost all the specifics of his background and early life, according to the most popular story, both sides of his family suffered under enslavement in the soon-to-be United States. Although records are scarce, it's said that Benjamin’s maternal grandmother, a woman named Molly Welsh, was falsely convicted of theft in England and sentenced to indentured servitude in Maryland (not an uncommon practice at the time). After earning her freedom, she rented land in Baltimore County and purchased two slaves to help farm it. Several years later, after the farming operation was established, she freed both men.

One of them, who is said to have been abducted from a royal family in Africa earlier in his life, displayed a keen interest in astronomy and other scientific subjects. He was called Bannake or Bankka, and Molly Welsh married him, violating state law that forbid marriage to slaves. Later, their daughter Mary and her husband—a Guinean man who’d been abducted, enslaved, and then baptized as Robert and freed—chose to adopt the surname Banneker at the time of their own marriage. Just a few years after regaining his freedom, records show that Robert was able to purchase a 100-acre farm (possibly the same one his mother-in-law rented), where his family would live out much of their lives and where his son’s scholarship would bloom.

Benjamin Banneker grew up as one of only 200 free African-Americans among 13,000 whites and 4000 slaves in Baltimore County. His experience with formal instruction was limited to a brief stretch in a one-room, mixed-race Quaker schoolhouse, but he was a keen study from his earliest years. Perhaps with his doting grandmother Molly’s help, he learned to read and soon became especially interested in mathematics and mechanics, often performing calculations and experiments on his own.

Once he was old enough to work on the family farm, Banneker settled into a lifestyle that combined this work with scholarly achievement. After his father’s death when Banneker was 27, he continued running the farm with his mother and sisters. The horses, cows, garden, and multiple beehives he kept enabled a simple, comfortable life for the family, according to one 19th-century account presented to the Maryland Historical Society. Using crop rotation and irrigation techniques that wouldn’t catch on in the U.S. for many decades, he also raised profitable tobacco crops that were sold alongside his produce in the Ellicott family’s store. Taking heed of food shortages during the Revolutionary War, Banneker also swapped tobacco out for wheat to help feed American soldiers.

Throughout his life, Elizabeth Ross Haynes writes, Banneker “found time to study all the books which he could borrow.” He became well-versed in topics throughout the sciences and humanities. The 19th-century account presented to the Maryland Historical Society remembered Banneker as “an acute observer, whose active mind was constantly receiving impulses from what was taking place around him.”

For example, one rather illustrative 1797 journal entry reads:

Standing at my door I heard the discharge of a gun, and in four or five seconds of time, after the discharge, the small shot came rattling about me, one or two of which struck the house; which plainly demonstrates that the velocity of sound is greater than that of a cannon bullet.

Some historians have speculated that Banneker’s many childhood lessons with his grandmother Molly, who may have gained a sophisticated understanding of astronomy from Bannake, could have fostered his particular expertise with the subject. However, it was his prowess with mathematics for which he first became renowned throughout Baltimore County, according to a 1912 article. As word spread of his exceptional skills, far-away scholars began sending Banneker complex mathematical problems, and they continued to do so throughout his life. Banneker reportedly always solved them, often responding in verse and with a fresh problem.

As a young man, Banneker also gained fame and admiration for miles around due to one of his earliest known mechanical feats: building a working clock almost entirely out of wood from scratch. It may have been the first clock ever assembled completely from American parts, according to Haynes (although other historians have since disputed this). Banneker reportedly only had a borrowed pocket watch to use for reference on clockwork mechanisms, while his wooden version contained functioning, carved-to-scale components. The clock continued working until a few days after Banneker’s death, when a fire destroyed his cabin home and many of its contents—clock included.

However, Banneker’s accomplished scholarship remained mostly unknown outside the region until he encountered the Ellicott family. In 1772, the Quaker Ellicotts purchased the land next door to Banneker’s and began building new gristmill facilities there. Banneker’s fascination with the mill’s mechanics made him a frequent visitor to the site. In keeping with Quaker tradition, the similarly scholarly Ellicotts were adamant proponents of racial equality, and they collaborated with Banneker as well as encouraged wider application of—and recognition for—his unique skills.

George Ellicott, a close friend of Banneker’s for decades, was himself a student of astronomy and eagerly shared both his resources and queries with his neighbor. Banneker took great advantage of the borrowed tools and books in performing exquisite astronomical calculations, such as predicting a solar eclipse near-exactly in 1789. He also began building the foundations for several atlases and technical treatises he’d release in the decades before his death. In 1791, George’s cousin, Major Andrew Ellicott, gave Banneker a national stage, after Andrew had gone to George requesting help with a new job. George, being otherwise busy, suggested Banneker's assistance. The job was surveying land along the Potomac River for what would soon be the nation’s capital, Washington, D.C.

Ellicott's plan for Washington, D.C. Image credit: Leeann Cafferata, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

The plans for the large city were laid out by French architect and engineer Pierre Charles L’Enfant, who volunteered for service in the American Revolution’s Continental Army and was hired for the project by George Washington in 1791. Before long, however, tensions mounted over its direction and progress of the project, and when L’Enfant was fired in 1792, he took off with the plans in tow.

But according to legend, the plans weren’t actually lost: Banneker and the Ellicotts had worked closely with L’Enfant and his plans while surveying the city’s site. As the University of Massachusetts explains, Banneker had actually committed the plans to memory “[and] was able to reproduce the complete layout—streets, parks, major buildings.” However, the University of Massachusetts also points out that other historians doubt Banneker had any involvement in this part of the survey at all, instead saying that Andrew and his brother were the ones who recreated L’Enfant’s plan. It's an intriguing myth, but it may only be that.

Yet Banneker’s valuable contributions to the project drew attention, and set the stage for later correspondence with Thomas Jefferson. During the project, the Georgetown Weekly Ledger made public note of Banneker as “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."

Gelman Library, George Washington University // Public Domain

In 1791, Banneker had finished his “painstakingly calculated ephemeris,” or table of the position of celestial bodies, which he would publish alongside charts, literature, and humanitarian and political essays in six almanacs with 28 editions in the following six years. Upon its initial completion, he first sent a copy of the ephemeris to then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, along with a famously direct, yet perfectly polite, letter challenging Jefferson’s opinion that African-Americans suffered an innate intellectual disadvantage [PDF]. Among other things, the letter observed:

Sir, I have long been convinced, that if your love for yourselves and for those inestimable laws, which preserved to you the rights of human nature, was founded on sincerity, you could not but be solicitous that every individual ... might with you equally enjoy the blessings thereof, neither could you rest satisfied [short of] their promotion from any state of degradation, to which the unjustifiable cruelty and barbarism of men may have reduced them.

Sir, I freely and cheerfully acknowledge that I am of the African race ... and it is under a sense of the most profound gratitude to the supreme ruler of the Universe, that I now confess to you, that I am not under the state of tyrannical thraldom, and inhuman captivity to which many of my brethren are doomed, but that I have abundantly tasted of the fruition of those blessings, which proceed from that free and unequalled liberty, with which you are favored, and which, I hope you will willingly allow, you have received from the immediate hand of that being ... [and] that the present freedom and tranquility which you enjoy, you have mercifully received, and that it is the peculiar blessing of heaven.

Jefferson’s letter of response the same year was significantly shorter than Banneker’s, and not without traces of the mindset Banneker sought to defeat. But it also documented the scholar’s triumph in gaining some respect for his accomplishments, and in helping to dislodge certain prejudices from the minds of the era’s most learned men.

On August 30, 1791, Jefferson wrote:

SIR,

I THANK you, sincerely, for your letter of the 19th instant, and for the Almanac it contained. No body wishes more than I do, to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men ; and that the appearance of the want of them, is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence, both in Africa and America. I can add with truth, that no body wishes more ardently to see a good system commenced, for raising the condition, both of their body and mind, to what it ought to be, as far as the imbecility of their present existence, and other circumstances, which cannot be neglected, will admit.

I have taken the liberty of sending your Almanac to Monsieur de Condozett, Secretary of the Academy of Sciences at Paris, and Member of the Philanthropic Society, because I considered it as a document, to which your whole color had a right for their justification, against the doubts which have been entertained of them.

I am with great esteem, Sir, Your most obedient Humble Servant,

THOMAS JEFFERSON.

The discrimination African-Americans suffered from Jefferson and other bigwigs is well-documented, and Banneker’s brave, considered opposition to it stands forever among his many admirable achievements. The 1854 document A Sketch of the Life of Benjamin Banneker reflected:

He appears to have been the pioneer in the movement in this part of the world, toward the improvement of his race; at a period of our history when the negro occupied almost the lowest possible grade in the scale of human beings, Banneker had struck out for himself a course, hitherto untravelled by men of his class, and had already earned a respectable position amongst men of science.

Records suggest that Banneker also suffered discrimination by lower-profile white Americans, and had his achievements belittled and questioned. Despite the many pushbacks he withstood, however, Banneker remained joyfully curious and generous of spirit throughout his life. According to A Sketch of the Life of Benjamin Banneker, he was able to slough off the bitterness of others in part thanks to his prevailing interest in study. “His equilibrium was seldom disturbed by the petty jealousies and inequalities of temper of the ignorant people,” the book notes, “with whom his situation obliged him frequently to come in contact.”

Benjamin Ellicott, who prepared extensive notes on Banneker’s life for the Maryland Historical Society, remembered him as such in a letter:

Although his mode of life was regular and extremely retired, living alone, having never married,--cooking his own victuals and washing his own clothes, and scarcely ever being absent from home, yet there was nothing misanthropic in his character … [He was known as] kind, generous, hospitable, humane, dignified and pleasant, abounding in information on all the various subjects and incidents of the day; very modest and unassuming, and delighting in society at his own home.

Given Banneker’s wide-ranging interests and enthusiasm, then, it is perhaps fitting that a variety of parks, schools, awards, streets, businesses, and other public and private institutions and facilities all bear his name today. Admirers can learn about the accomplished scholar at Benjamin Banneker Park and Memorial in Washington, D.C., for example, or at Baltimore, Maryland’s Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum. Others can choose to follow in his footsteps by exploring their passions and hobbies at community centers named for Banneker in Washington, D.C., Bloomington, Indiana, and Catonsville, Maryland. It seems possible, however, that the man himself might have been most fond of—or, at least, a very frequent visitor to—Maryland’s own Banneker Planetarium.

Header images via Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

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Lincoln Perry, the First African-American Movie Star

Lincoln Perry (stage name Stepin Fetchit) circa 1927
Lincoln Perry (stage name Stepin Fetchit) circa 1927
Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Before the likes of Sidney Poitier and Denzel Washington, successful African-American actors were hard to find in Hollywood. Lincoln Perry (1902-1985) is often credited as the world’s first African-American movie star. Using the stage name Stepin Fetchit, he is also said to be the first black actor to become a millionaire.

Born in Key West, Florida, Perry had a Jamaican father and Bahamian mother. His father, Joseph Perry, was a cigar wrapper and cook who sometimes sang and danced in minstrel shows. His mother, a devout Catholic, worked as a seamstress for a dentist’s family. As a young teenager, Perry sang and tap-danced as a tent-show performer, traveling around the U.S. with carnivals and medicine shows. In his twenties, Perry performed in black vaudeville shows as one-half of a duo called “Step and Fetch It” (although he also claimed to have taken the name "Stepin Fetchit” from a racehorse). After he came to Los Angeles in the 1920s, a talent scout for Fox Studios offered him a screen test, which proved successful.

During his career, Perry appeared in more than 40 movies, such as 1929’s Hearts In Dixie, 1930’s A Tough Winter, and 1934’s Judge Priest. In one of his early roles, 1927’s silent film In Old Kentucky, Perry won audiences over by providing comic relief. He got a contract with Fox to appear in the studio’s films as a featured player. Credited as Stepin Fetchit, Perry pretended to be “The Laziest Man On Earth” (or sometimes “The Laziest Man In The World”) to make audiences laugh, and he played a similar character in multiple films.

Perry’s peak of fame and fortune was in the 1930s, when he became a millionaire. Newspapers, magazines, and tabloids featured articles on Perry and his extravagant lifestyle. He reportedly owned a dozen cars (including a pink Cadillac with his name in neon lights), wore expensive cashmere suits, and had 16 servants and chauffeurs. He also attended Hollywood parties with celebrities such as Will Rogers, John Wayne, Mae West, Shirley Temple and, later, Muhammad Ali.

Beginning in the 1930s, though, Americans (black and white) and civil rights leaders harshly condemned Perry’s portrayals. Because he frequently played lazy, illiterate characters—often an aloof, slow, confused man with drooping eyes and rambling, incoherent speech—Perry was called out for promoting racist stereotypes. Criticized as a buffoon, an embarrassment, and a degrading caricature, Perry’s characters were seen as perpetuating the contemporary racist ideas of black people as lazy, dumb, and unsophisticated.

At the time, the NAACP was working to get film studios to give equal pay and billing to black and white actors, and to stop portraying black people negatively. Perry tried to get equal pay and billing from Fox, but failed, and quit Hollywood by 1940. In 1947, he was bankrupt. His acting work was sporadic in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. He died in 1985 in Los Angeles, at a hospital for members of the motion picture and television industry.

Although black historians and critics have often viewed Perry’s contributions to cinema negatively, some of them take a more nuanced view. Jimmie Walker, a black comedian, said that he doesn’t think Stephin Fetchit is all bad. According to Walker, Perry created a funny character that actually functions as a subversive trickster. In films, Perry’s character would often outsmart white characters by pretending to be incompetent so that the white people would get impatient and end up doing the work themselves. Black film critic Mel Watkins has said that African-Americans understood that Perry’s character had its origins in slaves resisting work, and found the humor in it.

Because Perry was billed as Stepin Fetchit rather than as Lincoln Perry, audiences had a difficult time separating the actor from his character. In a 1968 interview, Fetchit said, “Just because Charlie Chaplin played a tramp doesn't make tramps out of all Englishmen, and because Dean Martin drinks, that doesn't make drunks out of all Italians … I was only playing a character, and that character did a lot of good.” Far from being lazy or stupid himself, Perry wrote regular columns for The Chicago Defender newspaper to share his experience in Hollywood.

In 1976, Perry got a Special NAACP Image Award for his accomplishments, and he has a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame under the name Stepin Fetchit. Despite disagreements about Perry’s legacy, many agree that he opened a door for black actors in Hollywood.

This article first ran in 2017.

Grace O'Malley, the Fearless 16th-Century Irish Pirate Queen Who Stood Up to the English

Rockfleet Castle, which Grace O’Malley used as a base
Rockfleet Castle, which Grace O’Malley used as a base

If asked to name a pirate from history, many people will mention Blackbeard or Captain William Kidd. If pressed to name a female pirate, they might mention Anne Bonny, who terrorized the Caribbean alongside Captain "Calico" Jack Rackham in the early 18th century. Anne Bonny, however, was far from the only female pirate to terrorize the seas. More than a century before Bonny's birth, another woman ruled the waves, debated with Queen Elizabeth I, and sat at the head of a prosperous pirate empire. She was Grace O'Malley, Pirate Queen.

Grace With the Cropped Hair

Known in Gaelic as Gráinne Ní Mháille, Grace was born in Ireland sometime around 1530. She was the daughter of Eoghan Dubhdara Ó Máille, ruler of the territory of Umhall and the lord of an ancient, powerful dynasty in the province of Connaught. The Ó Máille family's money came from the seas, raised in the form of taxes levied on anyone who fished off their stretch of the Irish coast. The family were also shrewd traders and merchants, trading (and sometimes plundering) as far away as Spain. Ó Máille castles also dominated the southwest coastline of County Mayo, providing protection from invasion for the wealthy lord's territory. At a time when the Tudors in England were ramping up their conquest of Ireland, such defensive measures were vital.

The folklore of Grace O'Malley begins in her childhood, when she supposedly begged her father to let her join him on a trade mission to Spain. When he refused his daughter's request on the grounds that her long hair would be hazardous on the rolling deck of a ship, she hacked off her mane, earning herself the nickname Gráinne Mhaol, or "Grace with cropped hair."

Though little is known of Grace's early life, when she was about 16 she made a political marriage to Dónal Ó Flaithbheartaigh, heir to the lands of Ó Flaithbheartaigh. It was an excellent dynastic match, but despite bearing her husband three children, Grace wasn't made for housewifery. She had more ambitious plans.

Soon Grace was the driving force in the marriage, masterminding a trading network to Spain and Portugal and leading raids on the vessels that dared to sail close to her shores. When her husband was killed in an ambush by a rival clan around 1565, Grace retreated to Clare Island, and established a base of operations with a band of followers. According to legend, she also fell in love with a shipwrecked sailor—and for a time life was happy. But when her lover was murdered by a member of the neighboring MacMahon family, Grace led a brutal assault on the MacMahon castle at Doona and slaughtered his killers. Her actions earned her infamy as the Pirate Queen of Connaught.

Though Grace remarried for the sake of expanding her political clout, she wasn't about to become a dutiful wife. Within a year she was divorced, though pregnant, and living at Rockfleet Castle, which she'd gained in the marriage and which became her center of operations. According to legend, the day after giving birth to to her ex-husband’s son aboard a ship, she leapt from her bed and vanquished attacking corsairs

Grace continued to lead raiding parties from the coast and seized English vessels and their cargo, all of which did little to endear her to the Tudors. She was known for her aggression in battle, and it's said that when her sons appeared to be shirking, she shamed them into action with a cry of "An ag iarraidh dul i bhfolach ar mo thóin atá tú, an áit a dtáinig tú as?"—which roughly translates as "Are you trying to hide in my arse, where you came out of?"

In 1574 an English expedition sailed for Ireland with the aim of putting an end to her exploits once and for all. Though they besieged Rockfleet Castle, no one knew the coastline better than Grace, and she repulsed them with the might of her own ships.

But Grace made history in 1593 after her son was captured by Sir Richard Bingham, the English governor of Connaught. Appointed in 1584, Bingham had taken office as part of English efforts to tighten their hold on Ireland, and in 1586 his men had been responsible for the death of one of Grace's sons. Bingham also took cattle and land from Grace, which only served to increase her thirst for revenge. Yet she was a politician as much as a warrior, and knew that she couldn't hope to beat Bingham and the forces of the English government single-handedly.

Instead, she took the diplomatic route and traveled to England, where she requested an audience with Queen Elizabeth I to discuss the release of her son and the seizure of her lands. In addition, she challenged Gaelic law that denied her income from her husband's land and demanded that she receive appropriate recompense. She argued that the tumult reigning in Connacht had compelled her to "take arms and by force to maintain [my]self and [my] people by sea and land the space of forty years past." Bingham urged the queen to refuse the audience, claiming that Grace was "nurse to all rebellions in the province for 40 years," but Elizabeth ignored his entreaties. Perhaps the monarch was intrigued by this remarkable woman, because Grace's request was granted, and the two women met in September 1593.

A Meeting With the Queen

An 18th-century depiction of the meeting between Grace O'Malley and Elizabeth I
An 18th-century depiction of the meeting between Grace O'Malley and Elizabeth I
Anthologia Hibernica volume II, Wikimedia // Public Domain

Grace's Greenwich Palace summit with the queen has become legendary. She supposedly wouldn't bow to Elizabeth, whom she didn't recognize as the Queen of Ireland. Though dressed in a magnificent gown that befit her status, she also carried a dagger, which she refused to relinquish. The queen, however, was happy to receive her visitor—dagger and all. The summit was conducted in Latin, supposedly the only tongue the two women shared. Ignoring the fact that they were virtually the same age, Elizabeth decided that there was only "pity to be had of this aged woman" whom she believed "will fight in our quarrel with all the world."

By the end of the long meeting, an agreement had been reached. Bingham would be instructed to return Grace's lands, pay her the funds she had demanded, and free her son. In return, Grace would withdraw her support of the Irish rebellion and attack only England's enemies.

Yet the victory was short-lived. Though her son was freed, Bingham's censure was brief, and Grace received back none of the territory she had lost. Grace was furious, and she soon withdrew from public life.

The last years of Grace O’Malley are shrouded in mystery. It’s believed that she died at Rockfleet Castle around 1603—the same year as Queen Elizabeth I. Her memory lives on, not least in the Irish ballads, which remember her with these verses:

In the wild grandeur of her mien erect and high
Before the English Queen she dauntless stood
And none her bearing there could scorn as rude
She seemed well used to power, as one that hath
Dominion over men of savage mood
And dared the tempest in its midnight wrath
And thro' opposing billows cleft her fearless path.

Additional Sources: Granuaile: The Life and Times of Grace O'Malley; Pirate Queen; Anecdotes of the Aristocracy; "The day the Virgin Queen bowed to the pirate queen," Times of London; A Forgotten Part of Ireland; "Gráinne Mhaol, Pirate Queen of Connacht: Behind the Legend," History Ireland.

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