Possible Us

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Possible Us

Erica Bleeg

A quiet marker at the city’s edge remembers the man who helped map D.C.

Read Time:
6m 17sec


A month ago, the National Park Service unveiled panels documenting the long human history of Jones Point Park. “The hardest part of our work,” said Pam Cressey, a city archeologist involved in the effort, “is deciding what to say within a limited space.” A detail of the panel on astronomer Benjamin Banneker is shown below. (All photos © Erica Bleeg.)

By Erica Bleeg

In Alexandria, Virginia, just south of a wharf where at low tide great egrets feed, there is a 40-acre park on a small peninsula that since colonial times has been called Jones Point. Recently, I followed a dirt path into a grove of trees to explore, stopping at what the National Park Service calls an “interpretive wayside panel,” one of those ubiquitous educational plaques scattered throughout America’s parks. I was surprised to find a name I hadn’t seen in years: Benjamin Banneker.

As I walked and read the other half-dozen panels scattered throughout the park, each attempting to capture a different era of the peninsula’s history, I wondered how Banneker came to be remembered there. Banneker’s panel pictures two men, one white and peering into the lens of his surveying instrument, and one black, looking into the same distance with his naked eye, pencil and paper in hand. The man with the gadgetry is Major Andrew Ellicott, charged with surveying the D.C. boundary and based in Jones Point, the panel explains, while “on-site measurements and round-the-clock astronomical calculations were conducted by Benjamin Banneker, a free black, self-taught in math and astronomy.” The pair began work on Jones Point in 1791, after President Washington declared that the United States capital must be moved from Philadelphia to its present location.

Since 1964, the Park Service has worked with the Daughters of the American Revolution in developing Jones Point. In the early 20th century, the DAR maintained Banneker and Ellicott’s federal boundary markers, laid at one-mile intervals in 1791 and 1792 (37 of the original numbered stones still stand today), so I went to the local chapter’s former regent to ask if the chapter had anything to do with contributing the new panel content about Banneker and Ellicott. She didn’t know who they were.

Matt Virta, who led the Park Service’s team in developing historical content for Jones Point, said that it wasn’t until after the civil rights era that the United States began to give more funding to projects that documented the stories of minority groups and women. The Benjamin Banneker Park and Museum, for example, built on the land where the Banneker family once lived, was established in 1998, and in 2011 a memorial to Banneker was dedicated on Washington’s Southwest Heritage Trail. Virta doesn’t think Banneker is unknown so much as overshadowed, emerging from the field of history’s long tradition in which “the stories of great white men, their homes, and where they did their famous deeds were emphasized.”

Banneker first came to my attention in 1994 when I read Rita Dove’s poem by the same title. Dove was Poet Laureate Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress at the time, the first African American to hold that position, and the youngest. “Banneker” was published in her second volume, Museum (1983), which honors the obscure and the exploited, those who typically don’t get a voice to tell their own stories in the historical record.

Dove recently confirmed via email that she saw Banneker as an “underappreciated American icon.” She doesn’t remember exactly how she came across his name, but she was living in West Berlin at the time, “a young writer who couldn’t read all the books in the library fast enough.” At the American Memorial Library on Bluecherplatz, she recalled, “The stacks were dusty and many of the pages crackled. This was especially true in the American history section. I’m certain I found Banneker in one of those volumes. . . . Far away from home, surrounded by a foreign culture in that most beautiful yet at the same time beleaguered city, I felt a kinship with Banneker’s miraculous existence.” 

Benjamin Banneker was born in 1731 in Oella, Maryland. Banneker’s father, Robert, was an escaped former slave from Guinea. His mother was the daughter of a white Englishwoman, Molly Welsh, who came to the colony as an indentured servant; after serving seven years, she purchased Banneka, a slave from Africa’s Gold Coast, to help on her fledgling farm. She then gave him his freedom and married him. Silvio A. Bendini’s biography, The Life of Benjamin Banneker (1972), reminds us that she did so “at considerable risk to her own freedom, for laws concerning miscegenation were stringent.”

Raised on his parents’ tobacco farm, Banneker learned how to read from his grandmother, who taught him from her one book, the bible. He attended a country school and advanced through “double-position,” what we now call high school freshman algebra, but his formal studies were cut short when his father needed full-time help. At 22, Banneker gained fame when he made an operational clock. In a time when few owned clocks, people would travel to his remote farm just to see the timepiece and meet “the unusual farmer” who made it.

Of those neighbors was George Ellicott, one of a cohort of brothers who launched a major flourmill operation in what is now Ellicott City, Maryland. George nurtured Banneker’s interest in astronomy, and probably helped him land the surveying position alongside his brother.

After the surveying project concluded, Banneker began publishing almanacs, peppering reports of lunar movements and weather with political commentary. In 1792, he boldly wrote to then-Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, stating that black people are not inferior to whites and should be free. He included a copy of his almanac as evidence of black people’s intelligence. Alluding to Jefferson’s role in drafting the Declaration of Independence, Banneker wrote, “Sir, how pitiable it is to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren.”

Banneker published his correspondence and Jefferson’s reply in his 1793 almanac. Despite his courteous response, Jefferson later confided to a friend that “I have a long letter from Banneker, which shows him to have had a mind of very common stature indeed.” He assumed Banneker relied on Andrew Ellicott for help with his mathematical calculations.

I turn to Dove’s Museum, whose dedication page reads, “for nobody / who made us possible.” Her poem “Banneker” begins:

What did he do except lie
under a pear tree, wrapped in
a great cloak, and meditate
on the heavenly bodies?
The provocative line, “What did he do . . . ?” plays over in my mind as I read to the end: 
Lowering his eyes to fields
sweet with the rot of spring, he could see
a government’s domed city
rising from the morass and spreading
in a spiral of lights. . . .

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