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Saturday's birthday celebration a historic event at Benjamin Banneker Museum

MuseumsHarriet TubmanJohn F. KennedyVeterans Day

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

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.

As Marable and the three storytellers performed a traditional African libation ceremony, pouring water on a tree they intoned: "Let's honor the gifts we have received from our ancestors by giving to our descendants."

The Boys Choir of Powhatan led the singing of "Lift Every Voice and Sing," and followed that up with several Gospel songs.

The choir of boys in grades 2 through 12 is based at Woodlawn Elementary School, where their director, JoeAnn Oatis, teaches. They perform once a month for church groups, veterans groups and senior residences. Next spring, they will tour New England, with performances scheduled at Harvard University, the John F. Kennedy Library and several Boston schools.

The color guard, the JROTC Marines of Milford Mill Academy, was late — but with good reason. They were trying to make it to 10 different presentations on Veterans Day weekend.

Madeline Terrell changed her schedule to attend the celebration.

The former Catonsville resident and her husband decided to come to the celebration on their way back to their home in West Virginia. They made a day of it, visiting the reproduction cabin, touring the museum and finishing with the party.

"I really enjoyed myself," Terrell said.

Shirley and Jeff Supik came to celebrate, too.

They are caretakers for a different part of African-American history as the owners of the only documented residential safe house in Baltimore County. The Supiks live in a house behind the historic Emmart Pierpont house on Rolling Road. Built in 1791, the house sheltered runaway slaves for many years and the Supiks often give presentations about the Underground Railroad at the house, including an annual presentation on Harriet Tubman.

"It's a privilege to have a piece of history that is so touching and so significant in a time when people should not have been trusting each other — yet they came together to take care of each other," Shirley Supik said.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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