The Amazing Life of Benjamin Banneker

Illustrated portrait of American author, astronomer, and farmer Benjamin Banneker (1731 – 1806), mid to late 18th century. Credit: Getty Images

I should’ve saved this for Black History Month, but it’s too good a story to hold onto.

Benjamin Banneker was a naturalist, mathematician, astronomer and almanac author. He was a landowner who also worked as a surveyor and farmer. But the most amazing part is he lived as a free, self-taught Black in Maryland in the 18th century.

Born in Baltimore County, Maryland on November 9, 1731, Banneker became known for assisting Major Andrew Ellicott in a survey that established the original borders of the District of Columbia. Despite little or no formal education, his knowledge of astronomy helped him write a successful series of almanacs. Also, he was among the first to document the cicada’s 17-year life cycle. On the political side, he wrote to Thomas Jefferson to express his opposition to slavery and promote racial equality; these views were praised and promoted by abolitionists of the time. It was quite a distinguished life for an African American surrounded by injustice.

Why don’t we know more about Benjamin Banneker? Partly because a fire destroyed his cabin on the day of his funeral (October 19, 1806) and with it many of his writings. But enough was saved to preserve a historical legacy. His story does exist, it just has to be researched.

To learn more, listen to the Science Friday podcast of February 24, 2023 entitled “Appreciating The Brilliance Of Benjamin Banneker” ( Also see “Long Overlooked, Benjamin Banneker Is Recognized for Work on Cicadas and against Slavery” by Dr. Janet Barber on the Scientific American website ( And of course, there is always Wikipedia (

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