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Benjamin Banneker was an African American born free in Baltimore County, Maryland. He was largely self-taught and developed skills in mechanics, astronomy, and mathematics. He built an irrigation system for his family’s farm and successfully predicted lunar and solar eclipses. Banneker’s intelligence came to the attention of the Ellicott family, Quakers who grew prosperous by setting up grist mills in the Baltimore area. George Ellicott loaned books to Banneker and recommended that he work with his cousin, Andrew Ellicott, in surveying territory for the nation’s new capital city, the future Washington, DC. Banneker conceived of the idea of publishing an almanac of his astronomical calculations and was encouraged by leading Quaker abolitionists, who thought such a work would help combat the belief that blacks were intellectually inferior to whites by nature.
Banneker sent a copy of his published almanac with the following letter to Thomas Jefferson.