George W. Williams.

History of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880. Vol 1 Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens online

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Online LibraryGeorge W. WilliamsHistory of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880. Vol 1 Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens → online text (page 46 of 57)
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"PHILADELPHIA, Aug. 30, 1791.

"SIR, - I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th
instant, and for the almanac it contained. Nobody wishes
more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that
Nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to
those of the other colors of men, and that the appearance of
a want of them is owing only to the degraded condition of
their existence, both in Africa and America. I can add, with
truth, that no one wishes more ardently to see a good system
commenced for raising the condition, both of their body and
mind, to what it ought to be, as fast as the imbecility of
their present existence, and other circumstances which
cannot be neglected, will admit. I have taken the liberty of
sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet, Secretary of
the Academy of Sciences, at Paris, and members of the
Philanthropic Society, because I considered it a document to
which your whole color had a right, for their justification
against the doubts which have been entertained of them,

"I am, with great esteem, sir,
"Your most obedient servant,

"MR. BENJAMIN BANNEKER, near Ellicott's

Lower Mills, Baltimore county."[614]

The only time Banneker was ever absent from his home any distance was
when "the Commissioners to run the lines of the District of
Columbia" - then known as the "Federal Territory" - invited him to
accompany them upon their mission. Mr. Norris says: -

"Banneker's deportment throughout the whole of this
engagement, secured their respect, and there is good
authority for believing, that his endowments led the
commissioners to overlook the color of his skin, to converse
with him freely, and enjoy the clearness and originality of
his remarks on various subjects. It is a fact, that they
honored him with an invitation to a daily seat at their
table; but this, with his usual modesty, he declined. They
then ordered a side table laid for him, in the same
apartment with themselves. On his return, he called to give
an account of his engagements, at the house of one of his
friends. He arrived on horseback, dressed in his usual
costume; - full suit of drab cloth, surmounted by a broad
brimmed beaver hat. He seemed to have been re-animated by
the presence of the eminent men with whom he had mingled in
the District, and gave a full account of their proceedings."

His habits of study were rather peculiar. At nightfall, wrapped in a
great cloak, he would lie prostrate upon the ground, where he spent
the night in contemplation of the heavenly bodies. At sunrise he would
retire to his dwelling, where he spent a portion of the day in repose.
But as he seemed to require less sleep than most people, he employed
the hours of the afternoons in the cultivation of his garden, trimming
of fruit-trees, or in observing the habits and flight of his bees.
When his service and attention were not required out-doors, he busied
himself with his books, papers, and mathematical instruments, at a
large oval table in his house. The situation of Banneker's dwelling
was one which would be admired by every lover of nature, and furnished
a fine field for the observation of celestial phenomena. It was about
half a mile from the Patapsco River, and commanded a prospect of the
near and distant hills upon its banks, which have been so justly
celebrated for their picturesque beauty. A never-failing spring issued
from beneath a large golden-willow tree in the midst of his
orchard.[615] The whole situation was charming, inspiring, and no
doubt helped him in the solution of difficult problems.

There is no reliable data to enlighten us as to the day of his death;
but it is the opinion of those who lived near him, and their
descendants, that he died in the fall of 1804. It was a bright,
beautiful day, and feeling unwell he walked out on the hills to enjoy
the sunlight and air. During his walk he came across a neighbor, to
whom he complained of being sick. They both returned to his house,
where, after lying down upon his couch, he became speechless, and died
peacefully. During a previous sickness he had charged his sisters,
Minta Black and Molly Morten, that, so soon as he was dead, all the
books, instruments, etc., which Mr. Ellicott had loaned him, should be
taken back to the benevolent lender; and, as a token of his gratitude,
all his manuscripts containing all his almanacs, his observations and
writings on various subjects, his letter to Thomas Jefferson, and that
gentleman's reply, etc., were given to Mr. Ellicott.[616] On the day
of his death, faithful to the instructions of their brother,
Banneker's sisters had all the articles moved to Mr. Ellicott's house;
and their arrival was the first sad news of the astronomer's death. To
the promptness of these girls in carrying out his orders is the
gratitude of the friends of science due for the preservation of the
results of Banneker's labors. During the performance of the last sad
rites at the grave, two days after his death, his house was discovered
to be on fire. It burnt so rapidly that it was impossible to save any
thing: so his clock and other personal property perished in the
flames. He had given to one of his sisters a feather-bed, upon which
he had slept for many years; and she, fortunately and thoughtfully,
removed it when he died, and prized it as the only memorial of her
distinguished brother. Some years after, she had occasion to open the
bed, when she discovered a purse of money - another illustration of his
careful habits and frugality.

Benjamin Banneker was known favorably on two continents, and at the
time of his death was the most intelligent and distinguished Negro in
the United States.


One of the standing arguments against the Negro was, that he lacked
the faculty of solving mathematical problems. This charge was made
without a disposition to allow him an opportunity to submit himself to
a proper test. It was equivalent to putting out a man's eyes, and then
asserting boldly that he cannot see; of manacling his ankles, and
charging him with the inability to run. But notwithstanding all the
prohibitions against instructing the Negro, and his far remove from
intellectual stimulants, the subject to whom attention is now called
had within his own untutored intellect the elements of a great

Thomas Fuller, familiarly known as the Virginia Calculator, was a
native of Africa. At the age of fourteen he was stolen, and sold into
slavery in Virginia, where he found himself the property of a planter
residing about four miles from Alexandria. He did not understand the
art of reading or writing, but by a marvellous faculty was able to
perform the most difficult calculations. Dr. Benjamin Rush of
Philadelphia, Penn., in a letter addressed to a gentleman residing in
Manchester, Eng., says that hearing of the phenomenal mathematical
powers of "Negro Tom," he, in company with other gentlemen passing
through Virginia, sent for him. One of the gentlemen asked him how
many seconds a man of seventy years, some odd months, weeks, and days,
had lived, he gave the exact number in a minute and a half. The
gentleman took a pen, and after some figuring told Tom he must be
mistaken, as the number was too great." 'Top, massa!" exclaimed Tom,
"you hab left out de leap-years!" And sure enough, on including the
leap-years in the calculation, the number given by Tom was correct.

"He was visited by William Hartshorn and Samuel Coates,"
says Mr. Needles, "of this city (Philadelphia), and gave
correct answers to all their questions such as, How many
seconds there are in a year and a half? In two minutes he
answered 47,304,000. How many seconds in seventy years,
seventeen days, twelve hours? In one minute and a half,

That he was a prodigy, no one will question.[618] He was the wonder of
the age. The following appeared in several newspapers at the time of
his death: -

"DIED, - Negro Tom, the famous African calculator, aged 80
years. He was the property of Mrs. Elizabeth Cox, of
Alexandria. Tom was a very black man. He was brought to this
country at the age of fourteen, and was sold as a slave with
many of his unfortunate countrymen. This man was a prodigy.
Though he could neither read nor write, he had perfectly
acquired the use of enumeration. He could give the number of
months, days, weeks, hours, minutes, and seconds, for any
period of time that a person chose to mention, allowing in
his calculations for all the leap years that happened in the
time. He would give the number of poles, yards, feet,
inches, and barley-corns in a given distance - say, the
diameter of the earth's orbit - and in every calculation he
would produce the true answer in less time than ninety-nine
out of a hundred men would take with their pens. And what
was, perhaps, more extraordinary, though interrupted in the
progress of his calculations, and engaged in discourse upon
any other subject, his operations were not thereby in the
least deranged; he would go on where he left off, and could
give any and all of the stages through which the calculation
had passed.

"Thus died Negro Tom, this untaught arithmetician, this
untutored scholar. Had his opportunities of improvement been
equal to those of thousands of his fellow-men, neither the
Royal Society of London, the Academy of Science at Paris,
nor even a Newton himself need have been ashamed to
acknowledge him a brother in science."[619]


Through all time the science of medicine has been regarded as ranking
among the most intricate and delicate pursuits man could follow. Our
Saviour was called "the Great Physician," and St. Luke "the beloved
physician." No profession brings a man so near to humanity, and no
other class of men have a higher social standing than those who are
consecrated to the "art of healing." Such a position demands of a man
not only profound research in the field of medicine, but the rarest
intellectual and social gifts and accomplishments. For a Negro to gain
such a position in the nineteenth century would require merit of
unusual order. But in the eighteenth century, when slavery had cast
its long, dark shadows over the entire life of the nation, for a
Negro, born and reared a slave, to obtain fame in medicine second to
none on the continent, was an achievement that justly challenged the
admiration of the civilized world.

Dr. James Derham was born a slave in Philadelphia in 1762. His master
was a physician. James was taught to read and write, and early
rendered valuable assistance to his master in compounding medicines.
Endowed with more than average intelligence, he took a great liking to
the science of medicine, and absorbed all the information that came
within his observation. On the death of his master he was sold to the
surgeon of the Sixteenth British Regiment, at that time stationed in
Philadelphia. At the close of the war he was sold to Dr. Robert Dove
of New Orleans, a humane and intelligent man, who employed him as his
assistant in a large business. He grew in a knowledge of his
profession every day, was prompt and faithful in the discharge of the
trusts reposed in him, and thereby gained the confidence of his
master. Dr. Dove was so much pleased with him, that he offered him his
freedom upon very easy terms, requiring only two or three years'
service. At the end of the time designated, Dr. Derham entered into
the practice of medicine upon his own account. He acquired the
English, French, and Spanish languages so as to speak them fluently,
and built up a practice in a short time worth three thousand dollars a
year.[620] He married, and attached himself to the Episcopal Church,
in 1788, and at twenty-six years of age was regarded as one of the
most eminent physicians in New Orleans.

Dr. Rush of Philadelphia, in "The American Museum" for January, 1789,
gave an interesting account of this distinguished "Negro physician."
Says Dr. Rush, -

"I have conversed with him upon most of the acute and
epidemic diseases of the country where he lives. I expected
to have suggested some new medicines to him, but he
suggested many more to me. He is very modest and engaging in
his manners. He speaks French fluently, and has some
knowledge of the Spanish."[621]

Phillis Wheatley has been mentioned already. So, in the midst of
darkness and oppression, the Negro race in America, without the use of
the Christian church, schoolhouse, or printing-press, produced a
_poetess_, an _astronomer_, a _mathematician_, and a _physician_, who,
had they been white, would have received monuments and grateful
memorials at the hands of their countrymen. But even their color
cannot rob them of the immortality their genius earned.


[611] William Wells Brown, William C Nell, and all the Colored men
whose efforts I have seen, have made a number of very serious mistakes
respecting Banneker's parentage, age, accomplishments, etc. _He was of
mixed blood_. His mother's name was not Molly Morton, but one of his
sisters bore that name.

I have used the Memoirs of Banneker, prepared by J.H.B. Latrobe and J.
Saurin Norris, and other valuable material from the Maryland
Historical Society.

[612] In the most remote records the name was written _Banneky_.

[613] J. Saurin Norris's sketch.

[614] Jefferson's Works, vol. iii. p. 291.

[615] See Norris, paper on Banneker.

[616] All of Banneker's literary remains were published by J.H.B.
Latrobe in the Maryland Historical Society, and in the Maryland
Colonization Journal in 1845. The Memoir of Banneker was somewhat
marred by a too precipitous and zealous attempt to preach the doctrine
of colonization.

[617] Needles's Hist. Memoir of the Penn. Society for Promoting the
Abolition of Slavery, p 32.

[618] J.P. Brissot de Warville's Travels in the U.S., vol. i p. 243.

[619] Columbian Centinal of Boston, Dec. 29, 1790.

[620] Brissot de Warville's New Travels in the U.S., ed. 1794, vol. i.
p. 242.

[621] For an account of Fuller and Derham, see De la Littérature des
Nègres, ou Recherches sur leurs Facultés intellectuelles, leurs
Qualités morales et leur Littérature; suivies de Notices sur la Vie et
les Ouvrages des Nègres qui se sont distingués dans les Sciences, les
Lettres et les Arts. Par H. GRÉGOIRE, ancien Évêque de Blois, membre
du Sénat conservateur, de l'Institut national, de la Société royale
des Sciences de Göttingue, etc. Paris: MDCCCVIII.





The thunder of the guns of the Revolution did not drown the voice of
the auctioneer. The slave-trade went on. A great war for the
emancipation of the colonies from the political bondage into which the
British Parliament fain would precipitate them did not depreciate the
market value of human flesh. Those whose hearts were not enlisted in
the war skulked in the rear, and gloated over the blood-stained
shekels they wrung from the domestic slave-trade. While the precarious
condition of the Southern States during the war made legislation in
support of the institution of slavery impolitic, there were,
nevertheless, many severe laws in force during this entire period. In
the New England and Middle States there was heard an occasional voice
for the oppressed; but it was generally strangled at the earliest
moment of its being by that hell-born child, avarice. On the 21st of
September, 1776, William Gordon of Roxbury, Mass., wrote, -

The Virginians begin their Declaration of Rights with
saying,'that _all _ men are born equally free and
independent, and have certain inherent natural rights, of
which they cannot, by any compact, deprive themselves or
their posterity; among which are the enjoyment of life and
_liberty_.' The Congress declare that they 'hold these
truths to be self-evident, that all men are created _equal_,
that they are endowed by their Creator with certain
_inalienable rights_, that among these are life, _liberty_
and pursuit of happiness.' The Continent has rung with
affirmations of the like import. If these, Gentlemen, are
our genuine sentiments, and we are not provoking the Deity,
by acting hypocritically to serve a turn, let us apply
earnestly and heartily to the extirpation of slavery from
among ourselves. Let the State allow of nothing beyond
servitude for a stipulated number of years, and that only
for seven or eight, when persons are of age, or till they
are of age: and let the descendants of the Africans born
among us, be viewed as free-born; and be wholly at their own
disposal when one-and-twenty, the latter part of which age
will compensate for the expense of infancy, education, and
so on."

No one gave heed. Two months later, Nov. 14, there appeared in "The
Independent Chronicle" of Boston a plan for gradual emancipation; and
on the 28th of the same month, in the same paper there appeared a
communication demanding specific and immediate legislation against
slavery. But all seemed vain: there were few moral giants among the
friends of "liberty for all;" and the comparative silence of the press
and pulpit gave the advocates of human slavery an easy victory.

Boston, the home of Warren, and the city that witnessed the first holy
offering to liberty, busied herself through all the perilous years of
the war in buying and selling human beings. The following are but a
few of the many advertisements that appeared in the papers of the city
of Boston during the war: - [622]

From "The Independent Chronicle," Oct. 3, 1776: -

"_To be_ SOLD A stout, hearty, likely NEGRO GIRL, fit for
either Town or Country. Inquire of Mr. _Andrew Gillespie,
Dorchester, Octo., 1., 1776._"

From the same, Oct. 10: -

"A hearty NEGRO MAN, with a small sum of Money to be given

From the same, Nov. 28: -

"To SELL - A Hearty likely NEGRO WENCH about 12 or 13 Years
of Age, has had the Small Pox, can wash, iron, card, and
spin, etc., for no other Fault but for want of Employ."

From the same, Feb. 27, 1777: -

"WANTED a NEGRO GIRL between 12 and 20 Years of Age, for
which a good Price will be given, if she can be

From "The Continental Journal," April 3, 1777: -

"_To be_ SOLD, a likely Negro Man, twenty-two years old, has
had the small-pox, can do any sort of business; sold for
want of employment."

_To be_ SOLD, a large, commodious Dwelling House, Barn, and
Out-houses, with any quantity of land from 1 to 50 acres, as
the Purchaser shall choose within 5 miles of Boston. Also a
smart well-tempered NEGRO BOY of 14 years old, not to go out
of this State and _sold for_ 15 _years only, if he continues
to behave well_."

From "The Independent Chronicle," May 8, 1777: -

"_To be_ SOLD, for want of employ, a likely strong NEGRO
GIRL, about 18 years old, understands all sorts of household
business, and can be well recommended."

The strange and trying vicissitudes through which the colonies had
passed exposed their hypocrisy, revealed the weakness of their
government, and forced them to another attempt at the extirpation of
slavery. The valorous conduct of the Negro soldiers in the army had
greatly encouraged their friends and emboldened their brethren, who
still suffered from the curse of slavery. The latter were not silent
when an opportunity presented to claim the rights they felt their due.
On the 18th of March, 1777, the following petition was addressed, by
the slaves in Boston, to the Legislature: -


"The petition of a great number of negroes, who are detained
in a state of slavery in the very bowels of a free and
Christian country, humbly showing, -

"That your petitioners apprehend that they have, in common
with all other men, a natural and inalienable right to that
freedom, which the great Parent of the universe hath
bestowed equally on all mankind, and which they have never
forfeited by any compact or agreement whatever. But they
were unjustly dragged by the cruel hand of power from their
dearest friends, and some of them even torn from the
embraces of their tender parents, - from a populous, pleasant
and plentiful country, and in violation of the laws of
nature and of nations, and in defiance of all the tender
feelings of humanity, brought hither to be sold like beasts
of burthen, and, like them, condemned to slavery for
life - among a people possessing the mild religion of
Jesus - a people not insensible of the sweets of national
freedom, nor without a spirit to resent the unjust endeavors
of others to reduce them to a state of bondage and

"Your Honors need not to be informed that a life of slavery
like that of your petitioners, deprived of every social
privilege, of every thing requisite to render life even
tolerable, is far worse than non-existence.

"In imitation of the laudable example of the good people of
these States, your petitioners have long and patiently
waited the event of petition after petition, by them
presented to the legislative body of this State, and cannot
but with grief reflect that their success has been but too

"They cannot but express their astonishment that it has
never been considered, that every principle from which
America has acted, in the course of her unhappy difficulties
with Great Britain, bears stronger than a thousand arguments
in favor of your humble petitioners. They therefore humbly
beseech Your Honors to give their petition its due weight
and consideration, and cause an act of the legislature to be
passed, whereby they may be restored to the enjoyment of
that freedom, which is the natural right of all men, and
their children (who were born in this land of liberty) may
not be held as slaves after they arrive at the age of
twenty-one years. So may the inhabitants of this State (no
longer chargeable with the inconsistency of acting
themselves the part which they condemn and oppose in others)
be prospered in their glorious struggles for liberty, and
have those blessings secured to them by Heaven, of which
benevolent minds cannot wish to deprive their fellow men.

"And your petitioners, as in duty bound, shall ever pray: -

JACK PIERPONT, [his X mark.]
NERO FUNELO, [his X mark.]
NEWPORT SUMNER, [his X mark.]"

The following entry, bearing the same date, was made: -

"A petition of Lancaster Hill, and a number of other Negroes
praying the Court to take into consideration their state of
bondage, and pass an act whereby they may be restored to the
enjoyment of that freedom which is the natural right of all

Online LibraryGeorge W. WilliamsHistory of the Negro Race in America From 1619 to 1880. Vol 1 Negroes as Slaves, as Soldiers, and as Citizens → online text (page 46 of 57)