The other distinguished Negro, Benjamin Banneker, was born in Baltimore County, Maryland, November 9, 1731, near the village of Ellicott Mills. Banneker was sent to school in the neighborhood, where he learned reading, writing, and arithmetic. Determined to acquire knowledge while toiling, he applied his mind to things intellectual, cultivated the power of observation, and developed a retentive memory. These acquirements finally made him tower above all other American scientists of his time with the possible exception of Benjamin Franklin. In conformity with his desire to do and create, his tendency was toward mathematics. Although he had never seen a clock, watches being the only timepieces in the vicinity, he made in 1770 the first clock manufactured in the United States, thereby attracting the attention of the scientific world. Learning these things, the owner of Ellicott Mills became very much interested in this man of inventive genius, lent him books, and encouraged him in his chosen field. Among these volumes were treatises on astronomy, which Banneker soon mastered without any instruction. Soon he could calculate eclipses of sun and moon and the rising of each star with an accuracy almost unknown to Americans. Despite his limited means, he secured through Goddard and Angell of Baltimore the publication of the first almanac produced in this country. Jefferson received from Banneker a copy, for which he wrote the author a letter of thanks. It appears that Jefferson had some doubts about the man’s genius, but the fact that the philosopher invited Banneker to visit him at Monticello in 1803, indicates that the increasing reputation of the Negro must have caused Jefferson to change his opinion as to the extent of Banneker’s attainments and the value of his contributions to mathematics and science.
[Footnote 1: Washington, Jefferson’s Works, vol. v., p. 429.]
[Footnote 2: Baldwin, Observations, etc., p. 16.]
[Footnote 3: Washington, Jefferson’s Works, vol. v., p. 429.]
So favorable did the aspect of things become as a result of this movement to elevate the Negroes, that persons observing the conditions then obtaining in this country thought that the victory for the despised race had been won. Traveling in 1783 in the colony of Virginia, where the slave trade had been abolished and schools for the education of freedmen established, Johann Schoepf felt that the institution was doomed. After touring Pennsylvania five years later, Brissot de Warville reported that there existed then a country where the blacks were allowed to have souls, and to be endowed with an understanding capable of being formed to virtue and useful knowledge, and where they were not regarded as beasts of burden in order that their masters might have the privilege of treating them as such. He was pleased that the colored people by their virtue and understanding belied the calumnies which their tyrants elsewhere lavished against them, and that in that community one perceived no difference between “the memory of a black head whose hair is craped by nature, and that of the white one craped by art."