America's First Black Scientist

By Don Vitale

As I said in my first take on Benjamin Banneker, there's more to the story.

For starters let's be clear about Banneker. He was a free black man and a resident of Maryland. He was a mathematician, an astronomer and a surveyor.  Never a slave.

But that's not to say he wasn't sensitive to slavery and racial equality. How do we know this?

The letter he wrote to Thomas Jefferson, the one in which he pleaded with Jefferson to use his influence to bring an end to slavery in America. In fact Banneker chided (if I may use that word)  Jefferson and other framers of the Declaration of Independence for their hypocrisy in keeping "part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression."

While using Jefferson's own words "that all men are created equal," Jefferson and his compatriots are guilty of "narrow prejudices."

Ready for more?

Said Banneker: "you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act which you professedly detested in others." That's putting it on the line.... right, amigos?

So what happened, if anything?

At the time Jefferson was Secretary of State. He thanked Banneker for his views and passed his letter on to officials in the new government.  Jefferson had always during his life opposed slavery yet owned hundreds of slaves while freeing only a few.

As a footnote to this story, please note that the Postal Service issued a stamp in 1980 honoring "America's First Black Scientist."--dv