I have long admired Benjamin Banneker, the highly regarded scientist and mathematician who helped survey the planned city of Washington, D.C., so I was delighted to find this story about his grandmother.
[Benjamin Banneker was the first black man to publish an almanac, which he did from the years 1792 to 1802. He also wrote to Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson objecting to the injustice of slavery, and enclosed one of his almanacs. At first Jefferson regarded Banneker’s intelligence as an exception among African-Americans, rather than evidence that Jefferson’s perceptions about race might be fundamentally flawed. But three years after Banneker’s death, Jefferson wrote a letter disparaging Banneker and arguing that he could not have made the calculations contained in the almanac without assistance. Bannaker, according to Jefferson, “had a mind of very common stature indeed.”]
Alice McGill takes us back to Molly Walsh’s girlhood in 1673 in England. She was a 17-year-old dairymaid who dropped a pail of milk for the second time, and so was taken to court for “stealing” her lordship’s milk.
The usual punishment for stealing was death on the gallows, except if you could show you could read the Bible, which Molly could. Thus her life was spared but the judge sentenced her to seven years of bondage, to be served in the American colonies.
After seven years, Molly, now 24, was free, and she went out into the “wilderness” and bought a farm ten miles from Baltimore. Her new neighbors helped her build a cabin, but she couldn’t manage a tobacco farm on her own.
In 1692 she bought two slaves from a newly arrived ship. [The author only tells you about one of them, an African slave named Bannaky (also called Banneka) whom she eventually married.]
Bannaky, the son of an African chieftain, had by all accounts impressive stores of intelligence and dignity. He and Molly worked together and grew to love one another. Within three years Molly freed him. The author writes:
“Though Molly had broken colonial law by marrying a black man, her neighbors came to accept this marriage and to respect Bannaky.”
This was important because, as one learns elsewhere, at least 256 white women were prosecuted in Maryland for marrying black men during the colonial period. [The state of Maryland passed its first law against interracial marriage in 1664. The Maryland legislature claimed such marriages were a “disgrace” to the nation. See for example, Kevin Mumford, “After Hugh: Statutory Race Segregation in Colonial America, 1630-1725,” The American Journal of Legal History, Vol. 43, No. 3 (Jul., 1999), pp. 280-305.]
In addition, the law stipulated that mixed-race children of these marriages would be slaves for life. The white mothers could be sold as servants for seven years.
Somehow Molly and her children avoided these repercussions, although the book doesn’t provide details.
The two had four daughters, but while they were still young, Bannaky died. Molly taught her daughters how to work the land.
In time, the author writes, Molly had a grandson:
“In her Bible, Molly wrote her new grandson’s name: Benjamin Banneker. She taught this young boy to read and write. She told him about his grandfather, a prince who was the son of a king in Africa, and about her days as a dairymaid across the ocean in England.”
The story ends there, but the author appends a “Historical Note” that fills in more background not only on Mary but on Benjamin as well. In the story itself, there is no indication why Benjamin is more notable than anyone else.
The award-winning illustrator, Chris K. Soentpiet, employs bold, colorful watercolors to create some of the dramatic scenes imagined from Molly’s life. They look a bit like tableaus, however, rather than dynamic artwork.
Discussion: The story is actually a bit sketchy, and is more like a movie trailer in that way, with tantalizing highlights that should pique the interest of readers for further exploration. Issues kids might want to know more about include the punishments for stealing – even a pail of milk! – in 17th Century England; the laws involving indentured servants and interracial marriage in the early colonies; and what life was like for a young woman alone back then. And of course the big issue left unexplored in the main story: who was Benjamin Banneker?
Evaluation: This book is interesting, but mostly in the subjects it leaves unanswered. If a parent is willing to help fill in the blanks, it would constitute a valuable lesson on colonial times in America.
Published by Houghton Mifflin Company, 1999