1791 – Benjamin Banneker writes to Thomas Jefferson, urging justice for African Americans


On August 19, 1791, the accomplished American mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker pens a letter to then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson corresponds prolifically with luminaries from around the world, but Banneker is unique among them: the son of a free Black American woman and a formerly enslaved African man from Guinea, Banneker criticizes Jefferson’s hypocritical stance on slavery in respectful but unambiguous terms, using Jefferson’s own words to make his case for the abolition of slavery.

Banneker himself was born free in what is now Ellicott City, Maryland, and was encouraged in his studies of astronomy and mathematics by the Ellicotts, a Quaker family who owned a mill and much of the land in the area. Predicting a solar eclipse and constructing a functioning clock that struck on the hour were among his early achievements. His prowess caught the eye of Jefferson after Major Andrew Ellicott chose Banneker to assist him in surveying the original boundaries of what would become the District of Columbia. Banneker also compiled several ephemerides (a type of astronomical chart) and almanacs.

On August 19, 1791, the accomplished American mathematician and astronomer Benjamin Banneker pens a letter to then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson. Jefferson corresponds prolifically with luminaries from around the world, but Banneker is unique among them: the son of a free Black American woman and a formerly enslaved African man from Guinea, Banneker criticizes Jefferson’s hypocritical stance on slavery in respectful but unambiguous terms, using Jefferson’s own words to make his case for the abolition of slavery.

Banneker himself was born free in what is now Ellicott City, Maryland, and was encouraged in his studies of astronomy and mathematics by the Ellicotts, a Quaker family who owned a mill and much of the land in the area. Predicting a solar eclipse and constructing a functioning clock that struck on the hour were among his early achievements. His prowess caught the eye of Jefferson after Major Andrew Ellicott chose Banneker to assist him in surveying the original boundaries of what would become the District of Columbia. Banneker also compiled several ephemerides (a type of astronomical chart) and almanacs.

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READ MORE: Why Thomas Jefferson’s Anti-Slavery Passage Was Removed from the Declaration of Independence

Citation Information

Article Title

Benjamin Banneker writes to Thomas Jefferson, urging justice for African Americans

AuthorHistory.com Editors

Website Name

HISTORY

URL

https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/benjamin-banneker-writes-letter-to-thomas-jefferson-slavery

Access Date

August 19, 2022

Publisher

A&E Television Networks

Last Updated

August 17, 2022

Original Published Date

July 20, 2021