Banneker homestead project moves forward


After almost 10 years of planning, Maryland and Baltimore County will honor an astronomer, gazetteer and inventor known as "the first black man of science" with creation of the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park on land he once farmed.

Today, Benjamin Banneker's birthplace is a pine-covered field. Soon, the 130 acres in Oella will look much as they did 200 years ago, with the addition of a visitors center and gift shop.

The park, between Catonsville and Ellicott City, will be on land the county began buying in 1985. The first phase of the $10 million project will begin this summer with construction of a visitors center with permanent and revolving exhibits, an audiovisual room, office space, a library and a gift shop.

County officials say the park will expand sometime in 1997 to include a reproduction of the Banneker log cabin and tobacco farm, perhaps including animals and artifacts found on the site.

"We'd like to ultimately re-create what we think and what architects think the property would have looked like in 1800," said Al Svehla, assistant director of the county Department of Recreation and Parks. "We see this as an opportunity to develop a park that has national significance. . . . There aren't many national parks that acknowledge the achievements of black citizens."

The county will advertise for bids for construction of the parking lot and visitors center sometime this month. Bids probably will be opened in April, with construction on the first phase to begin by early summer, Mr. Svehla said.

"I think the project is extremely important," said Silvio Bedini, author of "The Life of Benjamin Banneker" and a Smithsonian Institution historian-emeritus. "I don't think he has been fully recognized for what his accomplishments are. I'm rather excited about it."

Mr. Bedini's 10 years of research and other documented information show that Banneker was born Nov. 9, 1731, in Oella on the Baltimore County side of the Patapsco River Valley, to a free mother and an enslaved father, who later gained his freedom.

Banneker lived in a log cabin and raised tobacco. He was never married and was a deeply religious man.

He was largely self-taught. At 22, he constructed a wooden clock with gears that lasted more than 40 years.

In 1789, he predicted a solar eclipse, and a few years later, he started an annual almanac -- the first scientific book published by an African-American. It appeared for about a decade, covering tide tables, future eclipses, and medicinal products and formulas.

In 1791, Banneker assisted in the survey of the 10-square-mile plot that became the District of Columbia.

That year, Banneker wrote Thomas Jefferson, telling him that God made blacks and whites with the same faculties, and included his astronomical calculations for the 1792 almanac as proof that blacks were no less capable than whites.

"I apprehend you will embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions which so generally prevail with respect to us," he wrote.

The day he died, Oct. 9, 1806 -- a month short of his 75th birthday -- his log cabin burned down.

The park will present a close approximation of how Banneker lived.

"It would be the most noteworthy thing done to honor the man to date," said Ronald L. Sharps, executive director of the Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis, a state-run repository of African-American historical cultural material.

"I think it's good to preserve his home site and tell his story," he said. "I believe there will be quite a demand by visitors."

When the park is finished, visitors will be able to see 100 never-exhibited artifacts that the Maryland Historical Trust uncovered in two archaeological digs.

Thimbles, sewing needles, tobacco pipes, wine bottles, ceramic tableware, buttons and a lens that might have come from a telescope eventually will be part of the permanent collection, said Richard Hughes, head of archaeology for the historical trust.

Banneker's remains, believed to be on the property, have not been found, he said.

The confirmation by archaeologists that the property was, in fact, Banneker's helped ward off developers who wanted to build there, he said.

The digs also confirmed information in Banneker's records that he sold his property to a family in exchange for an account at their general store. Under the agreement, he could live on the property until he died.

"The effect of [getting the store account] is that it gave him a great deal more free time, which he used to do things like stay up all night and study the stars and teach himself mathematics," Mr. Hughes said. "When he started getting his food from the Ellicott store, he got a lot of pork, and sure enough, in the archaeological record, at roughly the same time that we know from the store accounts he was purchasing a lot of pork, we see an increase in the amount of pork bones occurring in his trash."

Mr. Hughes said the trust will publish its findings, which only scratch the surface of information that could be buried on the grounds.

After the digs, the county brought on Slater Associates Inc., a Columbia landscape architectural firm, which spent two years designing the park master plan.

"The concept was to design a museum and visitors center that would be fairly low-scale and blend with and not intrude on the environment," said John B. Slater, the president.

Community members have been rallying around the project for 10 years. Once the county acquired the property, they formed Friends of Benjamin Banneker Historical Park, a volunteer group that helps guide and assist the county in the project. The 60 members plan to raise $300,000 to supplement money put up by the county and state, and plan a fund-raiser this month, said Chairman Leroy Giles.

Mr. Giles and other members are enthusiastic about the county's progress.

"I think we're excited to see a little more concreteness, a little more light at the end of the tunnel," he said.

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