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Remembering Benjamin Banneker

On Saturday May 22, 2021 I had the honor of visiting the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum in Oella, Maryland. This park was erected on the site of the Banneker family homestead (formerly known as Stout) in 1998. The land was originally purchased by Banneker's father Robert Banneker and the famed astronomer was wisely listed as an owner on the original deed along with his father. Banneker would grow up to become America's first major African American scientist having published his own almanacs and famously assisting in the survey of what would become the District of Columbia.

As a family historian, I was enamored by the idea that I was walking on the same grounds that house Benjamin Banneker's remains. The story of the family that produced Benjamin Banneker is just as fascinating as the life of their favored son. Benjamin Banneker's maternal grandmother Molly Welsh was an Englishwoman who was forced to move to the American colonies after being accused of stealing milk. Once she arrived in Maryland she purchased two enslaved African men, one of whom history remembers as Bannaka. It is believed that Bannaka was a Prince possibly of the Wolof or Dogon tribes of Senegambia or Mali. Molly fell in love with this man and eventually freed and married him, producing several children from this union. Bannaka used traditional West African farming techniques to help the family farm prosper and passed on much of this knowledge to his wife who in turn passed it on to their grandson after Bannaka's death. It is important to remember that the thrust of astronomical knowledge that Benjamin Banneker displayed originated from his West African grandfather and was reinforced by his African born father Robert Bannaky who is believed to have been from Nigeria. There is a wonderful family tree on display at the Banneker museum.

Benjamin Banneker's life and legacy is one that is not fully appreciated today, but it is my hope that more people will study his fascinating life. Banneker remains as a testament to African scientific genius and so I am glad that I was able to visit his homestead and honor him. If you have not visited this site I definitely recommend it. Also, for those of us who live in and around Washington, D.C., check out at least one of the boundary stones which were set by Banneker and Major Andrew Ellicott during their historic survey to lay out the District of Columbia.

James R. Morgan III poses with a book on Benjamin Banneker by Silvio Bedini next to a wax statue of Banneker

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