HISTORY TRANSFORMS ordinary objects in strange and wonderful ways. Tables, chairs, candle molds that were relatively worthless when their long-dead owners used them assume a kind of magic capable of letting us feel and understand past times and personalities in a way reading and studying cannot.
That is why it matters what happens to the humble belongings of Benjamin Banneker, a colonial-era free black man who taught himself to be a scientist, helped lay out the District of Columbia and bridged the chasm of race and class by befriending George Ellicott, scion of the family that founded Ellicott City.
Today, Baltimore County officials break ground for the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum in Oella, where Mr. Banneker lived. Ironically, this happy event coincides with an auction of more than 20 Banneker artifacts, being held this weekend in Bethesda, that could scatter them to buyers who might efface their connection to their famous owner.
Elizabeth Wilde of Indianapolis, the Ellicott descendant who inherited the Banneker items, has rebuffed pleas to donate them or even to give museum supporters time to raise the money to buy them. That is her right. But Ms. Wilde's unfortunate decision has left those who understand Banneker's importance to this region scrambling to figure how to keep the collection -- which includes maps, letters, candle molds and the drop-leaf table on which Banneker studied astronomy in Oella -- together and available to the public.
The Maryland Historical Trust has given a consortium of Banneker supporters a $50,000 grant to help buy the artifacts, but that likely will not be enough. So Baltimore County Executive C. A. Dutch Ruppersberger is asking the business community to donate money to match the $50,000 grant. The artifacts, if purchased, would become the property of the historic Banneker-Douglass Museum in Annapolis and loaned frequently to the new Oella museum.
Some business leaders may wonder why they should use their money this way. The answer: Because the Banneker items are an investment in our history and tangible links to an extraordinary man's extraordinary legacy. They are important. They belong here, where he lived, in a museum devoted to honoring him.
Pub Date: 9/04/96