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The son of a freed slave, Benjamin Banneker spent only a few winters in school. But he overcame racial prejudice and lack of formal education to become a widely respected astronomer and mathematician.
For most of his life, Banneker grew tobacco on a small farm in Maryland. In his 50s, he taught himself mathematics, astronomy, and surveying, using a neighbor’s books and instruments. He used his knowledge to write a series of popular almanacs with accurate information about the movements of the sun, moon, and stars and predications of tides and weather. In 1791, Banneker helped survey the new capital, Washington D.C.…He saved the project from disaster when the supervisor quit, taking the plans for the new city with him. Banneker was able to reconstruct the plans from memory.
B anneker spoke out strongly against slavery and prejudice. When Thomas Jefferson questioned the abilities of African-Americans, Banneker wrote him, defending his race. He won Jefferson’s friendship and support. Banneker’s remarkable achievements as a self-taught scientist were cited by 18th century abolitionists as proof that “the powers of the mind are disconnected with the color of the skin.”
When Banneker was 22, he built a wooden striking clock, even though he had never seen one. He carved every piece himself by hand.