What do you know about Benjamin Banneker? Did you know he was an amazing mathematician, taught himself astronomy and later wrote numerous almanacs? Maybe you know he built the first known American clock and was a member of the surveying team that designed Washington, D.C.? All of these facts are true, in addition to the fact that Banneker was born and raised in Maryland—Catonsville to be exact.
As the son of a former slave, Banneker was born in the Oella neighborhood of Catonsville in western Baltimore County close to Ellicott City. There Banneker gained knowledge as a farmer, clock maker, mathematician, astronomer, surveyor, writer and abolitionist. The land that once housed Banneker for 74 years is home to the renowned Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum.
“Every resident (of Maryland) needs to come here and really needs to learn the history. It is incredibly important … it is such an incredible site, and the fact that Baltimore County is able to be the caretaker of it, is just immense,” says the park and museum’s acting naturalist Breena Doyle.
Sitting on 142 acres of picturesque land, the grounds feature 3 miles of walking trails, a replica of the cabin home Banneker lived in and a museum that details his extraordinary life.
History tells the story of how Banneker’s father, Robert Bannaky—a highly skilled farmer—used the proceeds from his skills to purchase more than 100 acres of land in 1737. He handed the land over to his son, who would continue the family business of farming tobacco.
“We have the archaeological foundation of his (Banneker’s) house here. It was lost to history for the longest time, and the legwork has gone into not only finding it through records but also through the archaeology,” Doyle says.
As a once enslaved man, Bannaky’s ownership of land was unheard of in this era, and it forged the path Banneker would blaze to become an African American and American treasure.
The Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum offers a range of educational and enrichment programs for children, adults and families. Programs are strategically connected to different parts of Banneker’s work, allowing participants an opportunity to learn and connect themselves to his life as a mathematician, astronomer, surveyor, farmer, abolitionist and naturalist.
Children ages 2 to 5 can join a weekly program called Nature Tots, where they can engage with hands-on activities, stories, crafts and games connected to nature. Free self-guided scavenger hunts on the grounds and a monthly drop-in astronomy club are among some of the activities designed to encourage children and their families to learn about nature, science and astronomy.
Those who want to learn more about Banneker’s early days through the history of his father will find an adult seminar offered in February. The monthly night hike is another popular program that invites adults and children older than 6 to a free guided evening hike to explore the trails and learn facts about Banneker’s life. While each hike has a different theme, Doyle says participants can end their exploration with a bonfire and occasional s’mores. Advanced registration is required for the monthly night hikes.
Summer camp is available for children ages 4 to 12. Parents can contact the museum beginning March 1 for details and registration. Another special highlight is the annual Juneteenth festival. Last year, the event drew an increase of visitors to celebrate the official end of slavery and learn about Banneker’s life. Stay connected with the museum to learn the date and details of this year’s celebration.
Both the museum’s Facebook page and printed monthly calendar, available at the museum, detail the array of events and programs.
Visiting the Museum, Historical Park and Trails
Visiting the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum makes you appreciate Banneker’s extraordinary life and journey. Divided into three main parts, the museum offers a hands-on adventure space for children, conference-style learning space for activities and a community gallery housing artifacts about Banneker’s life.
As you and your family tour the museum gallery, you can read about the origins of Banneker’s family and how his family history influenced his development.
Items excavated from the Banneker farm are displayed, along with a replica of the first clock Banneker created. Large displays detail written information about Banneker as a mathematician, astronomer, writer
The museum has the actual desk Banneker received from the Ellicott family. He likely used the desk to write on and house his telescope.
Encased in glass, one of Banneker’s original almanacs from 1793 remains carefully preserved.
The gallery also features a print of an actual photograph of Banneker—a near rare occurrence since limited records of any photographs of him exist. The photograph was crafted from a wood-cut stamp imprinted on the cover of his 1795 almanac.
The walking trails surrounding the museum are open and available for members of the public to visit daily, sunrise to sunset. Visitors can access free parking at the museum, come in for a trail map and go off to explore on their own. Doyle encourages families to take advantage of the paths and visit the museum.
Field trips are available for school groups at no cost. Groups can learn about Banneker’s life, colonial life and techniques and more. The museum is also available for customized tours and programs.
For a man who had limited formal education but a natural aptitude for knowledge and discovery, Banneker defied odds and made contributions the world continues to benefit from today.
Visiting the historical park and museum allows you the opportunity to learn about his extraordinary life and work.
Recalling his abolitionist writings to then secretary of state Thomas Jefferson, Doyle says that Banneker wrote the following to Jefferson: “There is no difference in intelligence (of African Americans), and it is moreso a matter of opportunity.”
It is on the foundation of this belief, and the opportunities before us, that this Baltimore County historical site exists.
Visiting the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum
300 Oella Ave. Catonsville, MD 21228
Museum hours: Tuesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (except holidays)
Call or email the museum to register for events and programs.