A substantial mythology exaggerating Benjamin Banneker's accomplishments has developed during the two centuries that have elapsed since he lived. Several such urban legends describe Banneker's alleged activities in the Washington, D.C. area around the time that he assisted Andrew Ellicott in the federal district boundary survey. Others involve his clock, his almanacs and his journals. All lack support by historical evidence. Some are contradicted by such evidence.
A United States postage stamp and the names of a number of recreational and cultural facilities, schools, streets and other facilities and institutions throughout the United States have commemorated Banneker's documented and mythical accomplishments throughout the years since he lived.
Mythology of Benjamin Banneker
Plan of the City of Washington
While Andrew Ellicott and his team were conducting the federal district boundary survey in 1791-1792 (see: Boundary Markers of the Original District of Columbia), Pierre (Peter) Charles L'Enfant was preparing a plan for the federal capital city (the City of Washington), which would be located in a relatively small area bounded by the Potomac River, the Anacostia River (known at the time as the "Eastern Branch"), the base of the escarpment of the Atlantic Seaboard Fall Line, and Rock Creek at the center of the much larger 100-square-mile (260 km2) federal district (known at the time as the "Territory of Columbia") (see: L'Enfant Plan and History of Washington, D.C.#Founding). In late February 1792, President George Washington dismissed L'Enfant, who had failed to have his plan published and who was experiencing frequent conflicts with the three Commissioners that Washington had appointed to supervise the planning and survey of the federal district and city.
A number of undocumented stories connecting Banneker and L'Enfant's plan for the federal capital city have appeared over the years. In 1929, when describing the ceremonial presentation to Howard University in Washington, D.C., of a sundial memorializing Banneker, the Chicago Defender newspaper reported that a speaker had stated that:
.... he (Banneker) was appointed by President George Washington to aid Major L'Enfant, famed French architect, to plan the layout of the District of Columbia. L'Enfant died before the work was completed, which required Banneker to carry on in his stead.
However, as a book that won the 1917 Pulitzer Prize for History had earlier reported, L'Enfant lived long after he developed his plan for the federal capital city. He died near the City of Washington in 1825.
According to a similar Banneker legend, L'Enfant took his plans with him after his dismissal, leaving no copies behind. As the story is told, Banneker spent two days reconstructing the bulk of the city's plan from his presumably photographic memory. In this story, the plans that Banneker purportedly drew from memory provided the basis for the later construction of the federal capital city. Titles of works relating this fable have touted Banneker as "The Man Who Designed Washington", "The Man Who Saved Washington", "An Early American Hero", "Benjamin Banneker, Genius", and as one of "100 Greatest African Americans".
In another version of the tale, Banneker and Andrew Ellicott both surveyed the area of, and configured the final layout for, the placement of major governmental buildings, boulevards and avenues while reconstructing L'Enfant's plan or on another occasion. According to this version, Banneker either "made astronomical calculations and implementations" that established points of significance in the capital city, including those of the "16th Street Meridian" (see White House meridian), the White House, the Capitol and the Treasury Building, or "helped in selecting the sites" of those features.
A U.S. Treasury Department, Section of Fine Arts, mural in the Recorder of Deeds Building, which was constructed from 1940 to 1943 in Washington, D.C., perpetuates a Banneker legend by showing Banneker with a plan of the City of Washington. The oil portrait was the winner of a juried competition that the Section held on behalf of Doctor William J. Tompkins, an African American political figure who was at the time serving as the Recorder of Deeds. The competition announcement stated that seven mural subjects had been “carefully worked out by the Recorder...following intensive research” to "reflect a phase of the contribution of the Negro to the American nation.” A mural on the subject of “Benjamin Banneker Surveys the District of Columbia” was to “show the presentation by Banneker and Mayor Ellicott, of the plans of the District of Columbia to the President, [and] Mr. Thomas Jefferson” in the presence of Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton.
Citing a 1963 article in the Washington Star newspaper, a 1990 documentation form related the following version of the story when supporting a listing in the National Register of Historic Places for twelve historic marker stones from the federal district boundary survey:
.... Fearing profiteering land speculators, L'Enfant would not allow anyone to see the plan. Ordered by the commissioners to reveal the plan, he instead left the United States, taking all copies of his plan for the District of Columbia with him. Banneker reproduced it from memory in minute detail, thereby allowing the work to continue.
In 1976, an Afro-American Bicentennial Corporation historian told the following story within a National Register of Historic Places nomination form for the "Benjamin Banneker: SW-9 Intermediate Boundary Stone (milestone) of the District of Columbia":
.... Major L'Enfant resigned his position before the planned design was completed. It was only through the efforts of Major Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker that the Federal City was completed.
However, historical research has shown that none of these legends can be correct. Ellicott's 1791 assignment was to produce a survey of a square, the length of whose sides would each be 10 miles (16.1 km) (a "ten mile square"). L'Enfant was to survey, design and lay out the national capital city within this square. Ellicott and L'Enfant each worked independently under the supervision of the three Commissioners that President Washington had earlier appointed. Ellicott employed Banneker directly. A researcher could find no evidence that Banneker ever worked with or for L'Enfant.
Banneker left the federal capital area and returned to his home at Ellicott's Mills in April 1791. At that time, L'Enfant was still developing his plan for the federal city and had not yet been dismissed from his job. L'Enfant presented his plans to President Washington in June and August 1791, two and four months after Banneker had left.
Further, there never was any need to reconstruct L'Enfant's plan. After completing the initial phases of the district boundary survey, Andrew Ellicott began to survey the federal city to help L'Enfant develop the city's plan. During a contentious period in February 1792, Ellicott informed the Commissioners that L'Enfant had refused to give him an original plan that L'Enfant possessed at the time. However, L' Enfant had earlier given to Washington at least two versions of his plan, one of which Washington had presented to Congress in December 1791. Andrew Ellicott, with the aid of his brother, Benjamin Ellicott, then revised L'Enfant's plan, despite L'Enfant's protests. Shortly thereafter, Washington dismissed L'Enfant. After L'Enfant departed, the Commissioners assigned Ellicott the dual responsibility for continuing L'Enfant's work on the design of the city and the layout of public buildings, streets and property lots, in addition to completing the boundary survey. Andrew Ellicott therefore continued the city survey in accordance with the revised plan that he and his brother had prepared.
There is no historical evidence that shows that Banneker was involved in any of this. As a researcher has reported, the letter that Andrew Ellicott addressed to the Commissioners in February 1792 describing his revision of L'Enfant's plan did not mention Banneker's name. Thomas Jefferson did not describe any connection between Banneker and the plan for the federal city when relating his knowledge of Banneker's works in a letter that he sent to Joel Barlow in 1809, three years after Banneker's death.
L'Enfant did not leave the United States after ending his work on the federal capital city's plan. Soon afterwards, he began to plan the city of Paterson, New Jersey. The United States Congress acknowledged the work that he had performed when preparing his plan for the city of Washington by voting to pay him for his efforts.
A 1914 book describing the history of the City of Washington reported that L'Enfant's plan contained a title legend that identified L'Enfant as the plan's author. A 1902 report of a committee of the United States Senate (the McMillan Plan), an inlay of a city plan in a Washington, D.C., plaza constructed in 1980 (Freedom Plaza), and at least one book relating the history of the District of Columbia contain copies of the portion of a plan for the federal capital city that identifies "Peter Charles L'Enfant" (L'Enfant's adopted name) as the plan's author.[a 1] The U.S. Library of Congress owns a copy of a plan for the federal city whose last line in an oval in the plan's upper left hand corner identifies the document's author as "Peter Charles L'Enfant". The U.S. National Archives holds a copy of "Ellicott's engraved Plan superimposed on the Plan of L'Enfant showing the changes made in the engraved Plan under the direction of President Washington". As an original version of L'Enfant's plan still exists, President Washington and Ellicott clearly had at least one such version available for their use when L'Enfant departed.
In November 1971, the National Park Service held a public ceremony to dedicate and name Benjamin Banneker Park on L'Enfant Promenade in Washington, D.C. The U.S. Department of Interior authorized the naming as an official commemorative designation celebrating Banneker's role in the survey and design of the nation’s capital. Speakers at the event hailed Banneker for his contributions to the plan of the capital city after L'Enfant's dismissal, claiming that Banneker had saved the plan by reconstructing it from memory. A researcher later pointed out that these statements were erroneous.
In May 2000, Austin H. Kiplinger and Walter E. Washington, the co-chairmen of the Leadership Committee for the planned City Museum of Washington, D.C., wrote in The Washington Post that the museum would remind visitors that Banneker had helped complete L'Enfant's project to map the city. A letter to the editor of the Post entitled "District History Lesson" then responded to this statement by noting that Andrew Ellicott was the person who revised L'Enfant's plan and who completed the capital city's mapping, and that Banneker had played no part in this.
Appointment to planning commission for Washington, D.C.
In 1918, Henry E. Baker, an assistant examiner in the United States Patent Office, wrote of Banneker in The Journal of Negro History (now titled The Journal of African American History): "It is on record that it was on the suggestion of his friend, Major Andrew Ellicott, ..., that Thomas Jefferson nominated Banneker and Washington appointed him a member of the commission..." whose duties were to "define the boundary line and lay out the streets of the Federal Territory, later called the District of Columbia". However, Baker did not identify the record on which he based this statement. Baker additionally stated that Andrew Ellicott and L'Enfant were also members of this commission.
In 2000, historians John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, Jr., wrote in the eighth edition of the book, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, whose first edition had been published in 1947, that the "most distinguished honor that Banneker received was his appointment to serve with the commission to define the boundary lines and lay out the streets of the District of Columbia." The writers, who referenced Baker's 1918 article, also stated that Banneker's friend, George Ellicott (Andrew Ellicott's cousin), was a member of the commission and that Thomas Jefferson had submitted Banneker's name to President Washington.
In 2005, actor James Avery narrated a DVD entitled A History of Black Achievement in America. A quiz based on a section of the DVD entitled "Emergence of the Black Hero" asked:
Benjamin Banneker was a member of the planning commission for ____________ .
a. New York City
c. Washington, D.C.
However, historical evidence contradicts the statements that Baker, Franklin and Moss made and suggests that the question in the quiz has no correct answer. In 1791, President Washington appointed Thomas Johnson, Daniel Carroll and David Stuart to be the three commissioners who, in accordance with the authority that the federal Residence Act of 1790 had granted to the President, would oversee the survey of the federal district, and "according to such Plans, as the President shall approve", provide public buildings to accommodate the federal government in 1800.
The Residence Act did not authorize the President to appoint any more than three commissioners that could serve at the same time. As Banneker, Andrew Ellicott, and L'Enfant performed their tasks during the time that Johnson, Carroll and Stuart were serving as commissioners, President Washington could not have legally appointed either Banneker, Ellicott or L'Enfant to serve as members of the "commission" that Baker, Franklin and Moss described.
Further, Franklin and Moss did not cite any documentation to support their contention that George Ellicott participated in the planning and design of the nation's capital. Andrew (not George) Ellicott led the survey that defined the District's boundary lines and, with L'Enfant, laid out the capital city's streets. Additionally, there is no historical evidence that shows that President Washington participated in the process that resulted in Banneker's appointment as an assistant to Andrew Ellicott on the District boundary survey team.
In 1999, a researcher reported that an exhaustive survey of U.S. government repositories, including the Public Buildings and Grounds files in the National Archives and collections in the Library of Congress, had failed to identify Banneker's name on any contemporary documents or records relating to the selection, planning and survey of the City of Washington. The researcher also noted that none of L'Enfant's survey papers that the researcher had found had contained Banneker's name. Another researcher has been unable to find any documentation that shows that Washington and Banneker ever met.
Boundary markers of the District of Columbia
During 1791 and 1792, a survey team that Andrew Ellicott led placed forty mile marker stones along the 10 miles (16.1 km)-long sides of a square that would form the boundaries of the future District of Columbia, beginning at the square's south corner at Jones Point in Alexandria, Virginia (see Boundary Markers of the Original District of Columbia). On May 8, 2015, a Washington Post article describing a rededication ceremony for one of the marker stones reported that a regent of a chapter of the D.C. Daughters of the American Revolution had said:
These stones are our nation’s oldest national landmarks that were placed by Andrew Ellicott and Benjamin Banneker. They officially laid the seat of government of our new nation.
A May 30, 2015, the web version of a follow-up article in the Post carried the headline "Stones laid by Benjamin Banneker in the 1790s are still standing". Disputing the headline's information, a June 1, 2015, comment following the article stated while citing an extensively referenced source that Banneker had made the astronomical observations and calculations needed to establish the location of the south corner of the District's square, but had not participated in any later parts of the square's survey. (Banneker left the federal capital area and returned to his home at Ellicott's Mills in late April 1791, shortly after the south cornerstone was set in place during an April 15, 1791, ceremony.) Nevertheless, in 2016, a columnist writing in a Falls Church, Virginia, newspaper stated that Banneker had placed a District boundary stone in the writer's Arlington County, Virginia, neighborhood.
A 2016 booklet that the government of Arlington County, Virginia, published to promote the County's African American history stated, "On April 15, 1791, officials dedicated the first boundary stone based on Banneker's calculations." However, it was actually a March 30, 1791, presidential proclamation by George Washington that established ″Jones's point, the upper cape of Hunting Creek in Virginia″ as the starting point for the federal district's boundary survey. Washington did not need any calculations to determine the location of Jones Point. Further, according to an April 21, 1791, news report of the dedication ceremony for the first boundary stone (the south cornerstone), it was Andrew Ellicott who ″ascertained the precise point from which the first line of the district was to proceed". The news report did not mention Banneker's name.
In 1902, a professor of mathematics at Howard University, Kelly Miller, wrote in a United States Bureau of Education publication that Banneker had in 1770 "constructed a clock to strike the hours, the first to be made in America". In contrast, Phillip Lee Phillips, a Library of Congress librarian, more cautiously stated in a 1916 paper read before the Columbia Historical Society in Washington, D.C. that Banneker "is said to have made, entirely with his own hand, a clock of which it is said every portion was made in America."
In 1980, the United States Postal Service (USPS) issued a postage stamp that commemorated Banneker. The USPS' description of Banneker stated: "... In 1753, he built the first watch made in America." A 2004 USPS pamphlet illustrating the stamp stated that Banneker "constructed the first wooden striking clock made in America." The website of the Banneker-Douglass Museum, the State of Maryland's official museum of African American heritage, similarly claimed in 2015 that Banneker crafted "the first wooden striking clock in America".
In 2015, columnists Al Kamen and Colby Itkowitz wrote in the Washington Post that Banneker was "an African American inventor". However, while several 19th, 20th and 21st century biographers have written that Banneker constructed a clock, none of these alleged that Banneker invented a timepiece or anything else. None stated that Banneker's clock had any characteristics that earlier American clocks had lacked.
Documents describing the history of clockmaking in America show that Banneker's clock was not the first of its kind made in America. Connecticut clockmakers were crafting striking clocks throughout the 1600s, before Banneker was born. The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City holds in its collections a striking clock that Benjamin Bagnall constructed in Boston before 1740 (when Banneker was 9 years old) and that Elisha Williams probably acquired between 1725 and 1739 while he was rector of Yale College.
There is some evidence that wooden clocks were being made as early as 1715 near New Haven, Connecticut. Benjamin Cheney of East Hartford, Connecticut, was producing wooden striking clocks by 1745, eight years before Banneker completed his own wooden striking clock in 1753.
In addition to incorrectly describing Banneker's clock, Kelly Miller's 1902 publication stated that Banneker's 1792 almanac for Pennsylvania, Virginia and Maryland was "the first almanac constructed in America". The National Register of Historic Places nomination form for the ″Benjamin Banneker: SW-9 Intermediate Boundary Stone (milestone) of the District of Columbia" that an Afro-American Bicentennial Corporation historian prepared in 1976 similarly states that Banneker's astronomical calculations "led to his writing one of the first series of almanacs printed in the United States."
However, William Pierce's An Almanac Calculated for New England, printed in 1639 by Stephen Day in Cambridge, Massachusetts, preceded Banneker's birth by nearly a century. Benjamin Franklin published his annual Poor Richard's Almanack in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, from 1732 to 1758, more than thirty years before Banneker wrote his own first almanac in 1791.
In 2004, during a year in which Brood X of the seventeen-year periodical cicada (Magicicada septendecim) emerged from the ground in large numbers, columnist Courtland Milloy wrote in The Washington Post an article entitled "Time to Create Some Buzz for Banneker". Milloy claimed that Banneker "is believed to have been the first person to document this noisy recurrence" of the insect. Milloy stated that Banneker had recorded in a journal "published around 1800" that the "locusts" had appeared in 1749, 1766 and 1783. Milloy further noted that Banneker had predicted that the insects would return in 1800. In 2014, the authors of an online publication that reproduced Banneker's handwritten journal report cited Milloy's article and contended that "Banneker was one of the first naturalists to record scientific information and observations of the seventeen-year cicada".
However, earlier published accounts of the periodical cicada's life cycle describe the history of cicada sightings differently. These accounts cite descriptions of fifteen- to seventeen-year recurrences of enormous numbers of noisy emergent cicadas that people had written as early as 1737, when Banneker was six years old.
Pehr Kalm, a Swedish naturalist visiting Pennsylvania and New Jersey in 1749 on behalf of his nation's government, observed in late May the first of the three Brood X emergences that Banneker's journal later documented. When reporting the event in a paper that a Swedish academic journal published in 1756, Kalm wrote:
The general opinion is that these insects appear in these fantastic numbers in every seventeenth year. Meanwhile, except for an occasional one which may appear in the summer, they remain underground.
There is considerable evidence that these insects appear every seventeenth year in Pennsylvania.
Kalm then described documents (including one that he had obtained from Benjamin Franklin) that had recorded in Pennsylvania the emergence from the ground of large numbers of cicadas during May 1715 and May 1732. He noted that the people who had prepared these documents had made no such reports in other years. Kalm further noted that others had informed him that they had seen cicadas only occasionally before the insects appeared in large swarms during 1749. He additionally stated that he had not heard any cicadas in Pennsylvania and New Jersey in 1750 in the same months and areas in which he had heard many in 1749. The 1715 and 1732 reports, when coupled with his own 1749 and 1750 observations, supported the previous "general opinion" that he had cited.
Kalm summarized his observations and conclusions in a paper translated into English in 1771, in which he cited his 1756 Swedish publication and stated:
There are a kind of locusts which about every seventeen years come hither in incredible numbers .... In the interval between the years when they are numerous, they are only seen or heard single in the woods.
In 1758, Carl Linnaeus gave to the insect that Kalm had described the Latin name of Cicada septendecim (seventeen-year cicada) in the tenth edition of his Systema Naturae. Banneker's second observation of a Brood X emergence occurred eight years later.
Other legends and embellishments
In 1930, writer Lloyd Morris claimed in an academic journal article entitled The Negro "Renaissance" that "Benjamin Banneker attracted the attention of a President.... President Thomas Jefferson sent a copy of one of Banneker's almanacs to his friend, the French philosopher Condorcet....". However, Thomas Jefferson sent Banneker's almanac to the Marquis de Condorcet in 1791, a decade before he became President in 1801.
In 1943, an African American artist, Charles Alston, who was at the time an employee of the United States Office of War Information, designed a cartoon that embellished the statements that Henry E. Baker had made in 1918. Like Baker, Alston incorrectly claimed that Banneker "was placed on the commission which surveyed and laid out the city of Washington, D.C." Alston extended this claim by also stating that Banneker had been a "city planner". Alston's cartoon additionally extended a claim that Kelly Miller had made in 1902 by stating that Banneker had "constructed the first clock made in America".
In 1976, the singer-songwriterStevie Wonder celebrated Banneker's mythical feats in his song "Black Man", from the album Songs in the Key of Life. The lyrics of the song state:
Who was the man who helped design the nation's capitol, Made the first clock to give time in America and wrote the first almanac? Benjamin Banneker, a black man
The question's answer is incorrect. Banneker did not help design either the U.S. Capitol or the nation's capital city and did not write America's first almanac. The first known clockmaker of record in America was Thomas Nash, an early settler of New Haven in 1638.
In 1998, a Catalan writer, Núria Perpinyà, created a fictional character, Aleph Banneker, in her novel Un bon error (A Good Mistake). The writer's website reported that the character, an "eminent scientist", was meant to recall Benjamin Banneker, an eighteenth-century "black astronomer and urbanist". However, none of Banneker's documented activities or writings suggest that he was an "urbanist".
In 1999, the National Capital Memorial Commission concluded that the relationship between Banneker and L’Enfant was such that L’Enfant Promenade was the most logical place in Washington, DC on which to construct a proposed memorial to Banneker. However, a researcher has been unable find any historical evidence that shows that Banneker had any relationship at all to L'Enfant or to L'Enfant's plan for the city, although he wrote that the two men "undoubtedly" met each other after L'Enfant arrived in Georgetown in March 1791 to begin his work.
A history painting by Peter Waddell entitled A Vision Unfolds debuted in 2005 within an exhibition on Freemasonry that the Octagon House's museum in Washington, D.C., was hosting. The oil painting was again displayed in 2007, 2009, 2010 and 2011, first in the Joslyn Art Museum in Omaha, Nebraska and later in the National Heritage Museum in Lexington, Massachusetts and in the Scottish Rite Center of the District of Columbia in Washington, D.C. Waddell's painting contains elements present in Edward Savage's 1789-1796 painting The Washington Family, which portrays President George Washington and his wife Martha viewing a plan of the City of Washington.
A Vision Unfolds depicts a meeting that is taking place within an elaborate surveying tent. In the imaginary scene, Banneker presents a map of the Territory of Columbia to President Washington and Andrew Ellicott.
However, Andrew Ellicott completed his survey of the territory's boundaries in 1792. On January 1, 1793, Ellicott submitted to the three commissioners "a report of his first map of the four lines of experiment, showing a half mile on each side, including the district of territory, with a survey of the different waters within the territory". The Library of Congress has attributed to 1793 Ellicott's earliest map of the Territory of Columbia that the Library holds within its collections. As Banneker left the federal capital area in 1791, Banneker could not have had any association with the map that Waddell depicted. Further, a researcher has been unable to find any documentation that shows that President Washington and Banneker ever met.
Commemorative U.S. quarter dollar coin nomination
In 2008, the District of Columbia government considered selecting an image of Banneker for the reverse side of the District of Columbia quarter in the 2009 District of Columbia and United States Territories Quarter Program. The narrative supporting this selection alleged that Banneker helped design the new capital city, was "among the first ever African-American presidential appointees" and was "a founder of Washington, D.C." After the District chose to commemorate another person on the coin, the District's mayor, Adrian M. Fenty, sent a letter to the Director of the United States Mint, Edmund C. Moy, that claimed that Banneker "played an integral role in the physical design of the nation's capital." However, no president ever appointed Banneker to any position. Further, Banneker played no role at all in the design, development or founding of the nation's capital beyond his three-month participation in the two-year survey of the federal district's boundaries.
Several historical markers in Maryland and Washington, D.C., contain information relating to Benjamin Banneker that is unsupported by historical evidence or is contradicted by such evidence:
Historical marker in Benjamin Banneker Historical Park, Baltimore County, Maryland
A commemorative historical marker that the Maryland Historical Society erected on the present grounds of Benjamin Banneker Historical Park in Baltimore County, Maryland, states that Banneker "published the first Maryland almanac" in 1792. A researcher has reported that this statement is incorrect. The researcher stated that Banneker modeled the format of his almanac after a series of almanacs (The United States Almanack) that Andrew Ellicott had authored from 1781 to 1785. Ellicott had lived in Maryland during some of those years. Ellicott's almanacs were published in Baltimore, Maryland.
Further, Banneker did not "publish" his 1792 almanac. Although he authored this work, others printed, distributed and sold it.
Historical marker in Benjamin Banneker Park, Washington, DC
A historical marker that the National Park Service erected in Benjamin Banneker Park in Washington, D.C., states in an unreferenced paragraph:
Banneker became intrigued by a pocket watch he had seen as a young man. Using a knife he intricately carved out the wheels and gears of a wooden timepiece. The remarkable clock he constructed from memory kept time and struck the hours for the next fifty years.
However, Banneker completed his clock at the age of 22, when he was still a young man. No historical evidence shows that he constructed the clock from memory.
Further, it is open to question as to whether the clock was actually "remarkable". A researcher has noted that at least four clockmakers were working in Annapolis, Maryland, before 1753, when Banneker completed his own clock.
A photograph on the historical marker illustrates a wooden striking clock that Benjamin Cheney constructed around 1760. The marker does not indicate that the clock is not Banneker's.
Historical marker in Newseum, Washington, DC
In 2008, when the Newseum opened to the public on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C., visitors looking over the Avenue could read a historical marker that stated:
Benjamin Banneker assisted Chief Surveyor Andrew Ellicott in laying out the Avenue based on Pierre L’Enfant’s Plan. President George Washington appointed Ellicott and Banneker to survey the boundaries of the new city.
Little or none of this appears to be correct. Banneker had no involvement with the laying out of Pennsylvania Avenue or with L’Enfant’s Plan. Andrew Ellicott surveyed the boundaries of the federal district (not the “boundaries of the new city”) at the suggestion of Thomas Jefferson. Ellicott (not Washington) appointed Banneker to assist in the boundary survey.
Commemorations of Benjamin Banneker
A United States postage stamp and the names of a number of recreational and cultural facilities, educational institutions, streets and other facilities and institutions throughout the United States have commemorated Banneker's documented and mythical accomplishments throughout the years since he lived.
Benjamin Banneker postage stamp
On February 15, 1980, during Black History Month, the United States Postal Service issued in Annapolis, Maryland, a 15 cent commemorative postage stamp that featured a portrait of Banneker. An image of Banneker standing behind a short telescope mounted on a tripod was superimposed upon the portrait. The device shown in the stamp resembles Andrew Ellicott's transit and equal altitude instrument (see Theodolite), which is presently in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution'sNational Museum of American History in Washington, D.C.
The stamp was the third in the Postal Service's Black Heritage stamp series. The featured portrait was one that Jerry Pinkney of Croton-on-Hudson, New York, who designed the first nine stamps in the series, had earlier placed on another approved version of the stamp. A Banneker biographer subsequently noted that, because no known portrait of Banneker exists, the stamp artist had based the portrait on "imagined features".
Recreational and cultural facilities
The names of a number of recreational and cultural facilities commemorate Banneker. These facilities include parks, playgrounds, community centers, museums and a planetarium.
Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum, Baltimore County, Maryland
A park commemorating Benjamin Banneker is located in a stream valley woodland at the former site of Banneker's farm and residence in Oella, Maryland, between Ellicott City and the City of Baltimore.[a 2] The Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks manages the $2.5 million facility, which was dedicated on June 9, 1998. The park, which encompasses 138 acres (56 ha) and contains archaeological sites and extensive nature trails, is the largest original African American historical site in the United States. The primary focus of the park is a museum highlighting Banneker's contributions. The museum contains a visitors center that features a collection of Banneker's works and artifacts, a community gallery, a gift shop and a patio garden.
On November 12, 2009, officials opened a 224 square feet (20.8 m2) replica of Banneker's log cabin on the park grounds, reportedly two days before the 278th anniversary of Banneker's birth. Baltimore County's delegation to the Maryland General Assembly secured a $400,000 state bond for the design and construction of the cabin. The original estimated cost to construct the cabin in accordance with its drawings and specifications was $240,700.
A historical marker that the Maryland Historical Society erected to commemorate Banneker stands on the grounds of the park. The marker replaced the last of three earlier markers that vandals had previously destroyed.
Benjamin Banneker Park and Memorial, Washington, D.C.
A 4.7 acres (1.9 ha)urban park memorializing Benjamin Banneker is located inside a traffic circle, named Benjamin Banneker Circle, at a prominent overlook near the Potomac River waterfront at the south end of L'Enfant Promenade in southwest Washington, D.C. The park is a half mile (800 m) south of the Smithsonian Institution's "Castle" on the National Mall.[a 3] The National Park Service owns the park and has erected a historical marker there. The park, which was constructed in 1970 as the "Tenth Street Overlook", dedicated in 1971 as "Benjamin Banneker Park", and rededicated in 1997, is now at stop number 8 on Washington's Southwest Heritage Trail.
The elliptical200 feet (61 m) wide overlook provides elevated views of the nearby Potomac River. The centerpiece of the modernistplaza is a large conical fountain which projects water more than 30 feet in the air and catches it in a circular basin made from honed green granite. The rings of fountain and basin in the center of the site are reiterated in the benches, double rows of London Plane trees, and low concrete walls that establish the plaza’s edge. The ground plane is paved with granite squares, a continuation of L'Enfant Promenade's materials. The ground plane is concave, and with the trees and fountain helps define the spatial volume of the plaza.
In 1998, the 105th United States Congress enacted legislation that authorized the Washington Interdependence Council of the District of Columbia to establish at the Council's expense a memorial on federal land in the District that would commemorate Banneker's accomplishments. The Council plans to erect this memorial in or near the park. In 2006, the Council held a charrette to select the artist that would design the memorial.
Construction of the memorial was expected to begin after the United States Commission of Fine Arts and the National Capital Planning Commission (NCPC) approved the memorial's design and location in accordance with the legislation that authorized the establishment of the memorial and with the United States Code (40 U.S.C. § 8905). By 1999, however, the proposed memorial had become a $17 million project that would contain a visitors' center near the "Castle" at the north end of the Promenade, a clock atop a tall pedestal at the midpoint of the Promenade, a statue of Banneker in the park's circle at the south end of the Promenade and a skyway over an interstate highway (I-395) that would connect the park to the waterfront. After considering the proposal, the NCPC rejected the placement of the statue in the park and decided to consult with the District of Columbia government about placing a Banneker memorial at the midpoint of the Promenade.
The legislative authority relative to locating the Memorial on federal land lapsed in 2005. This did not preclude the location of the memorial on lands such as the road right-of-way in the Promenade that are under the jurisdiction of the District of Columbia's government.
During the 2000s, various organizations proposed to develop at the site of Benjamin Banneker Park a number of large facilities including a baseball stadium (later constructed elsewhere in D.C. as Nationals Park), the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a National Children's Museum and a National Museum of the American Latino. In 2004, the D.C. Preservation League listed the Park as one of the most endangered places in the District because of such proposals to redevelop the park's area. The League stated that the park, "Designed by renowned landscape architect Daniel Urban Kiley ... is culturally significant as the first public space in Washington named for an African American and is usually included in Black History tours".
In 2006, the District government and the Federal Highway Administration issued an environmental assessment for "improvements" to the promenade and park that described a number of projects that could redevelop the area containing the park. In 2011, a proposal surfaced that would erect a structure housing a "National Museum of the American People" at or near the site of the park.
In 2013, the National Capital Planning Commission approved "The SW Ecodistrict Plan", which recommended the redesign of Benjamin Banneker Park and adjacent areas to accommodate one or more new memorials, museums and/or landscaping. A 2014 addendum to the Plan stated: "A modern, terraced landscape at Banneker Park is envisioned to enhance the park and to provide a gateway to the National Mall."
Benjamin Banneker Park, Arlington County, Virginia
An 11 acres (4.5 ha) park in Arlington County, Virginia, memorializes Banneker and the survey of the boundaries of the District of Columbia, in which he participated. The park contains picnic tables, charcoal barbecue grills, a playground, a playing field, a dog park and a paved trail. The Benjamin Banneker: SW-9 Intermediate Boundary Stone, one of the forty boundary markers of the original District of Columbia, is within the park.
Banneker Playground, Brooklyn, New York
The Banneker Playground in Brooklyn, New York, was originally built by the federal Works Progress Administration in 1937. In 1985, the New York City parks department renamed the 1.67 acres (0.68 ha) playground to commemorate Benjamin Banneker. The playground contains handball and basketball courts, trees and a sculpture of a sitting camel. The Benjamin Banneker Elementary School (P.S. 256), built in 1956, is near the playground.
Banneker Community Center, Catonsville, Maryland
The Banneker Community Center (Banneker Recreation Center) in Catonsville, Maryland, is located near the intersection of the Baltimore National Pike (U.S. Route 40) and the Baltimore Beltway (Interstate 695), about 2 miles (3 km) northeast of the former site of Banneker's home and farm. A unit of the Baltimore County Department of Recreation and Parks, the facility contains ballfields, multipurpose courts and a playground.[a 4]
Banneker Community Center, Washington, D.C.
The Banneker Community Center in northwest Washington, D.C. is located near Howard University in the city's Columbia Heights neighborhood. The center, which is a unit of the District of Columbia Department of Parks and Recreation, contains playing fields, basketball and tennis courts, a swimming pool (Banneker pool), a computer lab and other indoor and outdoor facilities. Constructed in 1934 and named for Benjamin Banneker, the center's building (formerly named the Banneker Recreation Center) was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1986 because of its role as a focal point in the development of the black community in Washington, D.C.
L'Enfant Plan for the federal capital city
Mural in the Recorder of Deeds building in Washington, D.C., illustrating Banneker and a plan of the City of Washington (2010 photograph)
A contemporary reprint of Andrew Ellicott's 1792 "Plan of the City of Washington in the Territory of Columbia"
Benjamin Banneker cartoon by Charles Alston, 1943, claiming that Banneker had been a "city planner", "was placed on the commission which surveyed and laid out the city of Washington, D.C.", and had "constructed the first clock made in America".
A Vision Unfolds by Peter Waddell (2005)
Benjamin Banneker Park in Washington, D.C. (2011)
Looking north at Benjamin Banneker Park and Overlook in Washington, D.C., with L'Enfant Promenade behind it and the National Mall in the background (1990).
Banneker Community Center, Washington, D.C. (2011)
Though he has claimed to be a research scientist at Argonne National Labortory, Hunter Haviland Adams is, in fact, an industrial-hygiene technician (who “does no research on any topic at Argonne”) and whose highest degree appears to be a high school diploma (he calls himself "Professor"). Yet Adams has somehow managed to become a central figure in the pseudo-science and pseudo-history version of Afrocentricism (and just to be clear: we are not trying to bash Afrocentrism in general; we are calling out the pseudoscience that has sometimes been promoted in the name of Afrocentrism).
When the Portland, Oregon, school district published the African-American Baseline Essays in 1987, a set of six essays to be read by all teachers and the contents of which were supposed to be infused into the teaching of various subjects, Adams got to write The Science Baseline Essay (“African and African-American Contributions to Science and Technology”), a complete and utter display of sheer lunacy and imagination. The essay contains a mass of ridiculous claims supported by little or no evidence. It argues for the existence of the paranormal, advocates the use of religion as a part of the scientific paradigm, draws no distinction between information drawn from popular magazines, vanity press books, and the scientific literature, is riddled with unattributed and inaccurate quotations, and contains a a number of references to the existence and scientific validity of the paranormal in the context of its use by the ancient Egyptians. According to Adams, the ancient Egyptians were black and their culture ancestral to African-Americans. They also flew around in gliders and were the inventors of most of modern science, in particular the use of the zodiac and “astropsychological treatises,” which Adams implies is science. Furthermore, the ancient Egyptians were “famous as masters of psi, precognition, psychokinesis, remote viewing and other undeveloped human capabilities.” His essay does indeed claim that there is a distinction between magic, which is not scientific, and “psychoenergetics,” which supposedly is, but gives no basis to distinguish one from the other, rather defining psychoenergetics as the “multidisciplinary study of the interface and interaction of human consciousness with energy and matter.” Indeed, according to Adams Egyptian professional psi engineers, hekau, were able to use these forces efficaciously, and – for good measure – claims that that psi has been researched and demonstrated in controlled laboratory and field experiments today.
And, to repeat: The essay, endorsed by the school board, was aimed at grade-school teachers (who, by the way, are not themselves not necessarily particularly scientifically literate) to help raise scientific literacy among African-American students. Though widely distributed, the essay will of course do no such thing – indeed, according to Adams, African-American students should apparently replace the scientific method with an ancient Egyptian religious outlook (of dubious historical accuracy) that, according to him, is equal to science as a source of knowledge about the world (including commitment to a Supreme Consciousness or Creative Force, both material and “transmaterial” causal forces, and an emphasis on “inner experiences” as a source for acquiring knowledge). If the purpose is to remedy the fact that African-Americans are underrepresented in science, Adams’s essay is, in other words, not going to help.
Hundreds of copies of the Baseline Essays have been sent to school districts across the country. Carolyn Leonard, Coordinator of Multicultural/Multiethnic Education for the Portland Public Schools, has given more than 50 presentations on the Baseline Essays, and they have been adopted or been seriously considered by school districts as diverse as Fort Lauderdale, Atlanta, Chicago, and D.C., have been used for several years in Portland, and been adopted by the Detroit Public Schools.
Adams has also been associated with the magic melanin group, the promoters of the idea melanin gives dark-skinned people superpowers, and Adams is presented as a respected scholar for instance in books like the anthology Why Darkness Matters: The Powerof Melanin in the Brain (eds. Ann Brown, Richard D. King, Edward Bruce Bynum, & T. Owens Moore), which rivals whale.to for pseudoscience content. Although he never explained why he thought astrology was science in his Science Baseline essay, Adams did do so at the 1987 Melanin Conference. According to Adams melanin has an extraordinary ability to absorb and respond to magnetic fields, and “that movement [magnetic motion] is reflective of the movement of the sun, moon, planets, and stars. Thus, at birth, every living thing has a celestial serial number, or frequency power spectrum. This is the basis for astrology right here.” We’ll admit that it is probably as good a basis for astrology as any.
Diagnosis: As anti-science as your most desperate creationist, Adams’s bullshit is still being treated with respect for political purposes by well-meaning people who should know better, in the service of goals that his works will ultimately ensure cannot be achieved if taken seriously.