Benjamin Banneker birthday celebration

Taylor Drummond, left, and Jamal Abrams of the Milford Mill Academy Acting Ensemble portrayed young Benjamin Bannaker and his grandmother, Molly Bannaky, during the Nov. 10 birthday celebration at the Banneker Museum in Oella. (Photo by Phil Grout / November 10, 2012)

Friends and descendants of Benjamin Banneker gathered Nov. 10 to mark the 281st birthday of the famed African-American astronomer and mathematician who is also known for his work surveying the land that eventually became Washington, D.C.

But this time the focus of the annual celebration at the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum in Oella wasn't on the colonial-era African-American scientist and farmer.

The honoree at Saturday's celebration was his grandmother, Molly Bannaky.

"You can't tell the story of Benjamin Banneker without telling the story of Molly Bannaky," said William Lambert, president of the Friends of the Benjamin Banneker museum, said

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A diverse crowd numbered about 50, filling nearly every chair in the museum's central hall on Oella Avenue.

Many were already familiar with the stories of Benjamin and Molly.

Molly herself was in attendance, portrayed by Virginia Keeping, a California native who has been telling Molly's story for years.

"This woman did so much on her own at a time when women weren't considered much," Keeping said.

Keeping added that she's working on a book for young adults about Molly.

"It's such a powerful story, a woman's story," she said. "And it crosses racial lines."

She fell in love with the story when she heard it from a Banneker descendant, Gwen Marable.

Marable, who is Banneker's fifth collateral descendant, was also at Saturday's party. She is descended from Jemima Banneker Lett, Benjamin's sister.

Marable noted that the museum was the site of a reunion of the Lett family that attracted about 50 from around the eastern seaboard earlier this month.

Marable found out she was related to the Bannekers in 1992 after a cousin discovered the connection. The Cockeysville resident then began taking part in historical events, and now serves on the museum board.

Keeping was one of three storytellers on hand, along with Bob Smith, who portrays Banneker, and Virginia Shurman, who portrays Martha Ellicott.

Four members of the acting ensemble from Milford Mill Academy presented a skit, narrated by their director Dana Bowles.

Their performance, a dramatization of Molly Bannaky's coming to America, was the centerpiece of Saturday's celebration, besides the birthday cake.

The actors recalled the story of a 17-year-old milkmaid in Wessex, England, who was sent to America as an indentured servant after she was convicted of theft. Her crime was spilling a pail of milk, at the time a capital offense. Molly worked in the fields of a tobacco farm until her indenture was over. Then, in an act unusual for the time, she staked a claim on a piece of land near Elkridge where she started her own tobacco farm. She bought two slaves, whom she freed two years later.

She married one of them, the son of a Senegalese chieftain who called himself Bannaka. The couple had four daughters, one of whom would become Benjamin's mother, Mary. Molly taught Benjamin to read and write and told stories about his grandfather, whom she called a prince.

The celebration began with a traditional ritual, remembering an "inheritance of spirituality, wisdom, courage and fortitude," that set the tone for the day.