The Man You Won't Find In Your Early American History Books

By Don Vitale

Here's someone I came across the other day...a fellow who made what I would call singular contributions in the infant days of the Republic.

Yet I dare you to find him in any of your American history books. Not in our history books? Singular contributions?

For starters, how about a fellow who racked up more achievements than any 5 persons associated with America's coming of age.

Ever hear of Benjamin Banneker? I doubt it. Few Americans have.

First off, let's be clear on this. Banneker was an African American. In those days referred to as a member of the Negro Race. Not likely you'd find him having a pint in a pub rubbing elbows with the local gentry. Yet he did some amazing things during the salad years of The Republic. Things most people would only dream about.

So the question is: what did this man actually do to warrant my bringing him to your attention and, may I add, for your greater education.

Because Banneker was known for his prowess in siting buildings and large landscapes, he was asked to survey the new federal district. What federal district? Oh, you mean the one where the seat of government resides. The Congress and Supreme Court and a white house for the president to live in.

THAT federal district? Yes, that's the one....... eventually  known as D.C., The District of Columbia. Banneker played a key role in creating the bounds of that historic area.

His job? Nothing less than identifying the starting point of the survey. Face it, you have to start someplace on a project like this, right? Banneker was the one who said "this is where we start." And the team went from there, following him with their tripods, tapes and levels.

Did Banneker have other talents that would aid and abet an infant nation? Well, let's about publishing an Almanac. Would that qualify him for the history books? Especially an almanac that was commercially successful, printed and sold in six cities in four states. In those days people in the colonies relied on almanacs...Ben Franklin's Poor Richard's comes to mind, also The Astronomical Diary and Almanac published in Boston by Nathanael Ames.

To an extent most folks were farmers. Banneker's Almanac gave them weather predictions, solar activity and important astronomy cycles to help grow their crops. Could the history books then say, hey, this guy was come I never heard of him.

And let's not overlook that our friend was a scientist. That's right, folks, our man made astronomical calculations predicting solar and lunar eclipses for inclusion in his ephemeris in the almanacs he published. I could see this coming-- what's an ephemeris? Sounds a...maybe it's a...look, if you haven't a clue, you gotta head straight to.....where else? Wikipedia, of course.

Quote: "In astronomy and celestial navigation, an ephemeris (plural: ephemerides; from Latin ephemeris ("diary"), from the Greek "diary, calendar"))[1][2][3] gives the positions of naturally occurring astronomical objects as well as artificial satellites in the sky at a given time or times."

Got that? Good. Now that you've had your course in astro navigation, you may begin to appreciate our friend's many and versatile talents.

Lest I forget: at the ripe old age of 22 Banneker built a wooden clock. A clock that struck on the hour, every hour. It is said he created his pocket watch by carving each piece to scale. The clock kept time for 52 years until his death in 1806.

If you feel inclined to dismiss watchmaking....a little clock history is in order. We're talking the years in and around 1800. When clocks then were very rare. Especially those that worked. In lieu of a timepiece most folks only guessed at the time. Even today...ever try living without a clock or a watch for 24 hours?

Speaking of clocks, I see our time's up and class is over. Next time: more on Banneker. His correspondence with Thomas Jefferson on slavery and racial equality. His proposal to establish a Secretary of Peace. You won't want to miss it.

Just'll find him here, not in your American History Books.-dv