For many, December 21, 2020, is an important date, which welcomes the winter solstice. This day that includes the Northern Hemisphere’s shortest amount of daylight in the year due to the sun’s minimum elevation has been a festive event across antient cultures. It is a symbol that the days following would be longer, leading to the eventual bloom of life through spring.
This December 21 has been noted as more important than the standard 354th day of the year. From astronomers and hobbyist stargazers to astrologists and members of the general public, December 21, 2020, marks the great conjunction, a major astronomical event during which Jupiter and Saturn will appear closer than they have in hundreds of years. Admiring this extraordinary planetary event is the perfect opportunity to look back to admire one of the great astronomy minds of the United States—Benjamin Banneker.
Born a free Black child in 1731 Baltimore, Banneker, which was originally spelled Bannaker, experienced an upbringing was atypical during the time period. His parents, who were a free African American woman and a formerly enslaved Black man, owned their land. Banneker received an education—most of which was acquired through self-teaching—excelling in science, technology, and engineering, yet he was particularly adept at math and astronomy. While he was famous for constructing a working clock from wood, Banneker employed his talents in astronomy to design celestial maps and develop accurate solar-eclipse prediction.
One of America’s earliest and most-important innovators, Banneker created his own almanacs that could be used for seasonal planning, such as the spring farming that was much-anticipated during this time of year when winter stores of food were becoming depleted. According to the American Institute of Physics, Banneker sent one edition of his almanac to then-secretary of state Thomas Jefferson, accompanied by a note dated Aug. 19, 1791, which encouraged the future president to stand on the right side of history by taking a stance against slavery. In the letter, Banneker recalled Jefferson’s resistance to oppression of the colonies by the British, outlining the hypocrisy of the secretary of state’s acceptance of and participation in enslaving humans in America.
“…in detaining by fraud and violence, so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression; that you should, at the same time, be found guilty of that most criminal act which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves,” Banneker wrote.
While Banneker was born a free man, leading a life that afforded an education, and existence outside the horrors of enslavement, he also noted that as a Black man, he was still not able to lead a life free of challenges. Banneker reminded Jefferson that through his education and affinity for sciences, he was able to excel as an equal to white academics, overcoming many hurdles, but not yet liberated from the stain of racism growing throughout the United States, despite his extraordinary scientific abilities.
“This calculation is the production of my arduous study in this my advanced stage of life, for having long had unbounded desires to become acquainted with the secrets of Nature, I had to gratify my curiosity herein, through my own assiduous application to astronomical study, in which I need not recount to you the many difficulties and disadvantages, which I have had to encounter,” Banneker said.
As short December days become fewer and the promise of blooming spring life draws near, remember the legacy of Benjamin Banneker—an American innovator integral to this country’s history, growth, and scientific advancement.