Do you have a fascinating ancestor who is also a historical figure? What if family stories, DNA, and research found that ancestor to be a different race than expected? Researching and imagining their life could lead to asking hard questions and writing their story. Rachel Jamison Webster discovered her ancestor, Benjamin Banneker, was a brilliant mathematician who surveyed Washington D.C., and wrote almanacs. He was also African American, and her branch of the family had passed as white for several generations before her.
Who Was Benjamin Banneker?
Benjamin Banneker was born in Maryland on 9 November 1731 to a mother who had been born free and a father who was a freed slave. Benjamin had a brilliant mind and curiosity that was displayed in his fascination with astronomy. He invented a wooden clock that struck every hour in 1753 when he was about 21 years old. The clock worked until his death in 1806. He began to study astronomy in 1788, then, in 1791, he prepared an ephemeris (a book with tables showing the positions of the stars, planets, sun, and moon). Benjamin hoped this would become part of a published almanac.
During the colonial and early American era, almanacs were an important publication that helped farmers know when to plant and harvest their crops. The almanac contained specific dates for the rising and setting of the sun and moon, as well as other data. He couldn’t find a publisher for his 1791 work; however, in that same year, he was asked to join a surveying team headed by Andrew Ellicott. Thomas Jefferson was the U.S. Secretary of State and had asked Ellicott to survey the area that would become Washington, D. C.
After the surveying project, Banneker returned to his home and continued his work on his almanacs. Banneker’s first almanac was published in 1792 – the first of a six-year series. Banneker died on 19 October 1806 and became a notable historical figure based on his remarkable achievements as an African American man.
Benjamin Banneker and Thomas Jefferson
Having recently visited Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and discovered more about his relationship with his enslaved people, I was fascinated to read about Benjamin Banneker’s connection to Jefferson. The former president and writer of the Declaration of Independence declared each person’s right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness in that document, but this was really each white person’s right. The enslaved in the colonies had no such rights, and even a free person of color like Benjamin Banneker was legally not allowed many rights that whites in his community enjoyed.
After serving on the surveying team for Washington D.C. in 1791, Banneker wrote a letter to Jefferson pointing out this hypocrisy and asking Jefferson to “readily embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions which so generally prevails with respect to us. . . .”.1
Jefferson had recently written Notes on the State of Virginia asserting that blacks did not have the same intellectual capacity as whites.2 Banneker challenged this supposition in his 1791 letter, and his life’s accomplishments backed up Banneker’s own assertion that a black man could learn and achieve the same as a white man if given the opportunity. Banneker sent a copy of the first almanac in his own handwriting with the letter as a gift to Jefferson.
I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 10th. instant and for the Almanac it contained. no body wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our black bretheren, talents equal to those of the the other colours of men, & that the appearance of a want of them is owing merely to the degraded condition of their existence both in Africa & America. . .
Discovering the Connection and Writing the Story
Author, Rachel Jamison Webster, had no idea of her mixed-race ancestry until a family member casually mentioned their family’s connection to Benjamin Banneker. Another family member had started researching their Webster line looking to connect to Daniel Webster, and instead found censuses with an M for Mulatto marked in the race column. Several generations back, Webster’s family had started passing as white. A DNA test for Webster’s father confirmed the connection to Senegal and Gambia.
My cousin’s kinship, generosity, and intelligence made this writing possible and allowed the book to find its proper form as a conversation between the present and the past, between our ancestors and ourselves. Our conversations represent a new integration in our family. They also embody a truth about ancestry. Ancestry is always a collective inheritance and not an individual one, and discovering our ancestry is as much about cultivating healthy relationships int he present as it is about unearthing the names of ancestors from the past.
Webster uses historical context to imagine the story of the earliest generations of Benjamin Banneker’s forebears. She weaves her own journey of discovery throughout the book, and the result is a powerful telling of this portion of history. Throughout the book, the author tackles the tough questions of race and handles those with fairness and transparency.
As family historians, we want to tell the stories of our ancestors. We may or may not have a famous ancestor, but Benjamin Bannkers and Us: Eleven Generations of an American Family provides an excellent example of blending history with a journey of discovery.
- “To Thomas Jefferson from Benjamin Banneker, 19 August 1791,” Founders Online (https://founders.archives.gov/documents/Jefferson/01-22-02-0049 : accessed 21 July 2023).
- Gene Zechmeister, 2013, revised John Ragosta, 2018, “Notes on the State of Virginia, The Jefferson Monticello (https://www.monticello.org/research-education/thomas-jefferson-encyclopedia/notes-state-virginia/ : accessed 22 July 2023).
- Thomas Jefferson to Benjamin Banneker,” 30 August 1791, Library of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/exhibits/jefferson/79.html : accessed 21 July 2023.)
- Rachel Jamison Webster, Benjamin Banneker and Us; Eleven Generations of an American Family (New York: Henry Holt and Co., 2023), xii.