Banneker, the Abolitionist!

In yesterday’s post, we learned more about Banneker’s Almanac. Even more exciting is the fact that he used his notoriety as the publisher of an Almanac to advocate for American slaves!

 

banneker_letter_jefferson

In 1791, Thomas, who was then Secretary of State, a white supremacist, and a slave owner, pronounced Blacks mathematically inferior. On August 19, 1791, in response to Jefferson’s declaration of mathematical inferiority, Banneker sent Jefferson a copy of his almanac, along with a twelve-page letter requesting aid in improving the lot of American Blacks. In his letter, Banneker proclaimed that, by sending him the Almanac, he was “unexpectedly and unavoidably led” to develop a discourse on race and rights.

 

Banneker made it a point to “freely and cheerfully acknowledge, that I am of the African race.” Though not himself a slave, Banneker encouraged Jefferson to accept “the indispensable duty of those who maintain for themselves the rights of human nature,” by ending the “state of tyrannical thraldom, and inhuman captivity, to which too many of my brethren are doomed.” (In case you need to look this word up like I did, “thraldom” means a state of control or bondage to an owner or master.)

 

Appealing to Jefferson’s “measurably friendly and well-disposed” attitude toward blacks, Banneker presumed that he would “readily embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions which so generally prevail with respect to us.”

 

After acknowledging that by writing to Jefferson he was taking “a liberty which seemed to me scarcely allowable,” considering “the almost general prejudice and prepossession which is so prevalent in the world against those of my complexion,” Banneker launched into a critical response to Jefferson’s published ideas about the inferiority of blacks.

 

With restrained passion, Banneker chided Jefferson and other framers of the Declaration of Independence for the hypocrisy “in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the Same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves.” Citing Jefferson’s own words from the Declaration — the “self-evident” truth “that all men are created equal” — Banneker challenged Jefferson and his fellows “to wean yourselves from those narrow prejudices which you have imbibed with respect to” African Americans.

 

Click here to read the full text of his historic letter of resistance!

What is an almanac?

An almanac is an annual publication that includes all sorts of important dates and statistical information such as astronomical data and tide tables. Flipping through an almanac, you’ll be amazed to find tons of interesting information, such as weather predictions, the best dates for planting crops, when the sun will rise and set, the dates of eclipses and the times of tides. Almanacs even include such miscellaneous information as world records, population statistics, recipes, holiday trivia and predictions about trends in fashion, food, home decoration, technology and lifestyle for the upcoming year.

Banneker almanac title page

The oldest almanac in North America — The Old Farmer’s Almanac — has been published annually since 1792.  However, that wasn’t the only almanac printed in 1792. In that same year, Benjamin Banneker published his first of six annual Farmers’ Almanacs. Banneker’s almanacs included information on medicines and medical treatment, and listed tides, astronomical information, and eclipses, all calculated by Banneker himself.

 

Imagine: Nearly 100 years before Abraham Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation, Benjamin Banneker was publishing an almanac full of data and statistics based on his own calculations! Absolutely remarkable!!! Banneker’s Almanac’s were compared favorable with Benjamin Franklin’s Poor Richards’s Almanac. However, in 1802 he stopped publishing his Almanac due to poor sales.

 

Banneker lived for four years after his almanacs discontinued. He published a treatise on bees, did a mathematical study on the cycle of the seventeen-year locust, and became a pamphleteer for the anti-slavery movement. He continued scientific studies by night and walked his land by day…keeping his garden along the way. He hosted many distinguished scientists and artists of his day, and his visitors commented on his intelligence and on his knowledge of everything of importance that was happening in the country. As always, he remained precise and reflective in his conversations with others.

 

His last walk (with a friend) came on October 9, 1806, when he complained of being ill and went home to rest on his couch. He died later that day.