Received history calls for skepticism


THE REV. Eugene C. Dunn has a king-size bone to pick with The Sun. In fact, the good reverend sounds so miffed that I'm glad I'm not the target of his dudgeon. The targets are unnamed parties at this paper. Better them than me.

On Aug. 15, this paper ran an article about the opening of a Benjamin Banneker Museum in Oella next spring. Dunn - citing two sources - said the article contained errors and omitted some significant facts about Banneker's grandfather. Citing Aaron E. Klein's "The Hidden Contributors" and Louis Haber's "Black Pioneers of Science and Inventors," Dunn wrote in response:

"I am a regular reader of the Sunpaper and was horrified [at] the account concerning the life of Benjamin Banneker found in the Maryland section on August 15, 1997. I found the errors and omissions far too numerous to go unchallenged.

"Firstly your writer stated that Banneker's grandmother - one Molly Welsh, an Englishwoman - taught young Banneker to read. Molly Welsh was a former indentured slave and was wholly illiterate. Molly Welsh married an enslaved African who went by the name of Banakee who was very intelligent and claimed to be of African royalty.

"Banakee refused to take an English surname but allowed his name to be Anglicized to Banneker, which became the family name. A child, Mary Banneker, upon reaching womanhood like her mother married an enslaved African named Charles who, having no surname, took [See Kane, 3b] the family name of Banneker. Of this union Benjamin Banneker was born.

"Banakee [the grandfather] it was said knew how to 'read the stars,' thereby knowing when and how to plant his crops. [He] was also mechanically inclined [and] built an ingenious irrigation system, making the family farm one of the most prosperous of its time. Because of this, young Benjamin's parents were able to send him to a Quaker school where he learned to read, write and further his education. Much of young Banneker's knowledge about reading the stars [and] astronomy he learned from his grandfather."

Dunn has done more than challenge the standard version of Benjamin Banneker's life. He has challenged the entire way all of us - black and white - have come to view history. Consider:

Dunn's sources claiming that Banneker's grandfather knew astronomy and had enough knowledge of agriculture and mechanics to build an irrigation system. Several historians have debunked the old school history of Africa - i.e., the claim that Africans were savages and that New World slavery "civilized" them - and claimed that the slaves brought to the Americas were quite skilled in several areas, agriculture among them.

Much has been written about why today's Africa is so poor. It might be because African leaders of old sold off a very valuable labor resource.

The matter of Banneker's grandfather refusing to change his African surname, Anglicizing it instead. Was Banakee the only one to do this? Perhaps not. Historian William McFeely, in his biography of Frederick Douglass, offered a theory about Douglass' original family name of Bailey. McFeely said Bailey may have been an Anglicized form of the West African Fulbe name Belali.

What about the last name Kane? Is it of European origin? There are many black Kanes on Maryland's Eastern Shore, from whence my father, Maurice Kane, and his father, Dorsey Kane, hailed. Historian William Loren Katz said the language of an Eastern Shore Indian tribe was found to be not Native American, but Mandingo. Kane is a common surname among the Muslim Mandingo people of West Africa. Did those black Eastern Shore Kanes adopt their surname from a white master of the same name, or was it handed down to them from a Mandingo ancestor named Kane?

The traditional "white devil" school of history some black folks have come to cherish says that we were stripped of our names, religion, culture and language. But several recent books have argued that some African Muslim slaves clung to their religion in spite of the best efforts of their masters to get them to change it. Similarly, some Africans may have kept their names in spite of pressures to change them.

What about these European women as indentured servants? Banakee married one, as did my great-great-great-grandfather Owen Smith. Smith married a French indentured servant in 1852 in either Calvert or St. Mary's County. Common history books tell us white indentured servitude ended long before 1852. Common history books are obviously wrong. One woman who called me from Los Angeles said her area of study was trying to determine how and why slaves from certain parts of Africa ended up in certain parts of the United States. Free black men marrying white women who were indentured slaves, the woman said, was common in Calvert and St. Mary's counties in the mid-1850s.

What was going on in Europe that so many white women ended up as indentured servants in Maryland in the 1850s, and what does it teach us about the sexism of the time?

Much of what we have been taught about history is nonsense. Let's all of us - of all races - look at what we are taught closely so we can separate the bogus from the real.

Pub Date: 9/27/97

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