Benjamin Banneker: Astronomer, surveyor, agriculturalist
Museum’s visitors get to know Banneker better
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There is a little-known museum and park in Maryland where you can learn about a man whose story deserves telling.
Benjamin Banneker, an African-American astronomer who helped survey the boundaries of Washington, DC, and once implored Thomas Jefferson to change his views on race, made his home at this Baltimore County site near present-day Catonsville on the Patuxent River. Today, the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum celebrates his accomplishments. What’s more, it’s a great site for hikers and nature lovers.
I learned about Benjamin Banneker when my children and I discovered his biography during African-American History Month at the library. I do not recall being taught anything about him in the 1970s and 1980s, even though I grew up not far from his home and was aware of a few schools that bore his name.
“Banneker was a self-taught scientist who overcame a lot of hardships in his life to accomplish great things,” said Justine Schaeffer, a naturalist on staff at the museum. “That’s a story a lot of people can relate to.”
Banneker was born in 1731 as a free black man in Baltimore County. His white grandmother, Molly, had been sent to the colony of Maryland as an indentured servant after being accused of stealing milk in England. After working off her punishment, she purchased slaves and began a tobacco farm. Later, she freed her slaves and married one of them, Bannaka, the prince of a tribe in Senegal. The land they purchased was eventually deeded to Benjamin and his father, Robert Bannaky. Over time, the family name was changed to the more English-sounding surname, Banneker.
Molly taught her grandson how to read, and the family sent him to a Quaker school for a short time. But for the most part, Banneker educated himself. He was fascinated with mathematics and mechanics, and those interests would lead him to build a clock at the age of 22, although he had only briefly seen two other timepieces before attempting the complicated project.
When the Ellicotts — a family of white, Quaker entrepreneurs — moved into the area near his home, Banneker befriended them. Together, they pursued a mutual interest in astronomy, and in 1788, Banneker borrowed some of the Ellicotts’ tools and books to predict with very near accuracy a coming eclipse of the sun.
Three years later, when the Ellicotts were contracted to survey land along the Potomac River for the mapping of a new federal city, they hired Banneker to assist. His skillfulness during the project did not go unnoticed; a newspaper in Georgetown even ran a note publicly praising his talents.
In 1791, after returning to his home, Banneker wrote and published an almanac with information about the moon and the planets that he developed using a telescope and some complicated equations.
“I’ve had modern-day astronomers visit and look at his ephemeris (table of calculations) and say they could do it if they had the right software,” Schaeffer said, “but not using only the tools that Banneker had at that time.”
At the urging of his well-connected friends, Banneker sent a copy of his almanac to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson along with a letter asking that he reconsider his notions of race. Within it, Banneker questioned how someone who had so eloquently argued the case of human rights in the Declaration of Independence could continue to be guilty of the “most criminal act” of slavery.
Jefferson answered Banneker in writing and praised his intellect and work, agreeing that the conditions for black people should be improved. The correspondence was published soon after in a pamphlet by abolitionists, although Jefferson’s status as a slave owner and his political positions did not change.
Banneker continued with the demanding research needed to publish six more of his commercially popular publications over the next five years. He died in 1806, a few years after selling his property to the Ellicott family.
Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum is now nestled there, snugly fit between the leafy green streets of suburban Catonsville and the tiny historic town of Oella, along the border of Maryland’s Howard and Baltimore counties.
For decades, experts were unsure of the actual location of the Banneker home. Then, in 1978, the deed signed by both Benjamin and Bannaka was found in Annapolis. The 142-acre park, opened in 1998, is thought to be the largest original African-American historical site in the country.
“Here you can walk on his land, you can walk where he walked,” Schaeffer said. “We kind of rescued it from the clutches of developers in the 1980s.”
Schaeffer thinks that to understand Banneker, one has to understand at least a small part of what tumbled around his brain. In addition to being an incredible astronomer, he was an avid nature lover, a prolific gardener, orchard owner and beekeeper. To honor his memory, the museum offers science and nature center programs as well as history field trips. There’s also a small hands-on area in the building where children are welcome to examine items like acorns, rocks, insects and shells.
While the park is small compared with nearby places such as Patapsco Valley State Park, its 6 miles of trails offer a combination of seclusion and accessibility.
Within the outdoor exhibit yard you’ll see a log cabin that replicates Banneker’s home. It was built with materials common to Banneker’s time, using the dimensions of the original home’s foundation, which lies hidden from view in the woods nearby.
Those who visit between 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday can have a personal tour. Excavated artifacts from the property are always on display, but a new exhibit — slated to open Sept. 15 — highlights the significance of these and other objects found during archeological excavations on the property. Museum admission is free.
Visitors can drive straight to the museum entrance, where ample parking is available, or walk from the nearby towns of Oella and Ellicott City via a path called the #9 Trolley Trail. (See above.)
For those wanting a longer hike, the park’s red and blue trails offer relatively easy-to-walk journeys into very quiet sections of what the staff calls “Banneker Backcountry,” with many opportunities for wildlife viewing.
I initially visited the place to see the museum, but I have since returned several times to enjoy exploring its woods. Walking among the ferns and beech trees, I find myself imagining Banneker sitting alone night after night, staring at the sky. There would not have been any light pollution to interfere with his view, and he must have spent many hours memorizing the constellations in peaceful contemplation.
I wonder if he felt a mix of joy and dread at the prospect of leaving the Patapsco Valley for the first time alongside his cosmopolitan pals, the Ellicotts, to survey areas filled with plantations and slave owners.
Learning the story of their friendship changed the way I thought about Ellicott City, a place I’ve often gone to meet friends for a beer, a cup of coffee, or an afternoon of antique hunting. I used to think of this town and its shops as quirky, quaint and cute. After spending time at the Banneker museum, I also see it as a symbol of how the early Industrial Revolution transformed Maryland.
So often we think of that time without remembering that there have been many, like Banneker, sidelined by racism and oppression. His park and museum remind us to always listen for their voices and honor their presence, too.
The Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum is located at 300 Oella Avenue, Catonsville, MD 21228.
Museum hours are 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday–Saturday.The park is open daily from sunrise to sunset.
For information, visit benjaminbanneker.wordpress.com or call 410-887-1081.
Walk to the Banneker park and museum on the #9 Trolley Trail
The #9 Trolley Trail is something of a local secret — much like the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum — that is unknown to most who live outside the immediate area.
To find it, approach from Ellicott City’s Main Street. Passing under the railroad bridge at the bottom of the hill, the road becomes Frederick Road as you cross over the Patapsco River. On your right you’ll see the industrial Wilkens-Rogers Mill, which still grinds corn and wheat into flour daily. Turning left onto Oella Avenue, you’ll pass the stone remains of two of the trolley line’s old bridge supports, which no longer hold any tracks. Turn right into the next public parking lot; you can leave your car here and climb the steep stairs at the rear to reach the trailhead.
The #9 Trolley Trail is 1.5 miles in length and flanks Cooper’s Branch, a small tributary of the Patapsco River. The path is often full of families out for a scooter or bike ride. It follows what was once a popular line built in the late 1800s to take commuters into Baltimore. The trolleys stopped running in 1955, although for years many local youths used the derelict tracks to quickly get from Catonsville to Ellicott City. The right of way was eventually paved and is now part of the greater system of trails in the Patapsco Heritage Greenway. See patapscoheritagegreenway.org/recreation/hiking.html.
About halfway along the #9 Trolley Trail, large signs direct you to the unpaved and much quieter Banneker trail system. There are two trails leading up to the building and, like all trails at the park, both are clearly and consistently blazed. The two eventually converge and lead you uphill past the site of an old family ice pond to the back of the Banneker museum.
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