Book Review: Benjamin Banneker and Us: Eleven Generations of An American Family by Rachel Jamison Webster

Rachel Jamison Webster is a writer and teacher who grew up near Lake Erie in Ohio. A white woman, she did not know until she was an adult that her father’s family had passed into whiteness a few generations back. Through that family line, she is related to the oldest documented example of an American family of African and European lineage, and to Benjamin Banneker, the celebrated Black man of colonial Maryland who wrote popular almanacs. Benjamin Banneker and Us is a braided tale of Banneker’s life, the story of his grandparents (the African man Bana’ka and the English woman Molly) and the story of the author’s own journey in writing about them as a twenty-first century white woman.

At the outset, Webster acknowledges the difficulty of writing ethically about her Black and mixed-race ancestors. Her sources for the book include archival research and countless hours of conversation with her Black cousins, for whom the history of the Banneker family was never lost or forgotten. It feels natural that they might be the ones to write about their family history rather than a descendant who only just discovered it, but as a writer, Webster felt called to the work of going on a genealogical quest to write about Bana’ka, Molly, and their legacy.

Benjamin Banneker was a remarkable man. Educated at home and at a Quaker school for a few years, he continued his studies of natural sciences and mathematics on his own. He taught himself to build a clock, helped survey Washington D.C., wrote almanacs based on his own astronomical observations and calculations, and lived as a free man in eighteenth century Maryland. He wrote a searing letter to Thomas Jefferson, questioning how he could have written the Declaration of Independence and at the same time be a slaveholder. Benjamin died at the age of 74 and though he was a prolific journal writer, nearly all his writings were tragically burned when his cabin was set afire the day after his funeral. Fortunately, copies of his almanacs survive. 

Benjamin Banneker did not marry or have children. Rachel Webster is descended from his sister, Jemima Banneker, who married Samuel Delaney Lett, a mixed-race man of European and indigenous ancestry. Jemima and Samuel had nine children and a productive farm in Maryland but the family faced untenable racism and moved to the Northwest Territory in Ohio in the 1820s. The Banneker-Lett family had helped support the Revolution, but when it was over they were not allowed the freedom, land, and voting rights that white men had. The first Continental Congress did not free enslaved people and the family lost all they had worked to acquire. It was after the move to Ohio that the family eventually split along racial lines, with one of Webster’s great-grandmothers appearing as mulatto on a census in 1850 and then as white on a later census. She had to be white to be legally married to a white man in Ohio at that time.

Molly and Bana’ka were brought to the Colonies in the late 1600s at a time when “race was being constructed as a political tool.” Bana’ka was kidnapped from Senegambia and Molly was brought to the Colonies as an indentured servant because she was accused of allowing a cow to kick over a bucket of milk. Only the barest facts are known about them and their daughter Mary, the mother of Benjamin Banneker, but Webster takes the known facts and writes scenes that may have occurred in their lives that are engaging and plausible, helping the reader to feel as if they have met them. This imaginative engagement with history humanizes the historical figures in the book and shows a kind of spiritual leaning toward the people of the past that makes them come alive on the page. 

The details of the relationship between Molly and Bana’ka are, of course, buried by time. In  family oral history, Molly is the grandmother of Benjamin Banneker. But during the course of Webster’s research for this book, a Provincial Court Record surfaced that could be interpreted to mean that she was the family’s owner instead. This record, combined with a cousin who spoke up to say she thought the project was “just another white exploitation of a Black story,” created a temporary rift between Webster and Robert Lett, one of the cousins she had been working with. Webster does not shy away from writing about this, and it underscores the painful parts of family history that still echo today. 

To answer the question of Molly’s true relationship with the Bannekers, Webster examined the archive with her cousin Edie Lee Harris, who had done a great deal of research on the Bannekers already. They read an original copy of a will from a woman named Mary Welsh who could be their Molly (Molly is a nickname for Mary). The will guarantees the freedom of several people, including a person named Benjamin. However there is documentation that the people mentioned in the will were already free and it could be that, given the increasing institutionalization of slavery over the course of her lifetime, Molly/Mary put in writing that her family was “assigned” to her as a way of protecting them from being kidnapped into slavery by others. There is precedent for this type of arrangement for free Black people, including in Harriet Jacobs’ Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl

The Banneker family is “the most documented family of color in colonial times.” If the marriage between Molly and Bana’ka seems unlikely, in fact it “was not nearly as unusual as it would go on to become. Newly freed British and European women of the lower classes were so inclined to marry and have children with Native American and African American men that the very first law naming the category of whiteness did so as a way of reserving these women for British men.” Before reading this book I knew very little about the indentured servitude of Europeans in colonial America and for me, one of the most interesting threads is the story of how the concept of race was invented as a political tool, a caste system that privileged the interests of the British. It divided enslaved Black people from indentured Europeans, undermining a potentially strong alliance against the ruling class. The legacy of that racist path is profound in the socio-political realities of the United States as well as in the intimate stories of a family in which different branches became unaware of each other due to racial categorization of people.

Webster’s journey in untangling wills, marriage records, and oral histories is a significant part of this book, which is part history and part memoir, a combination unlike anything else I’ve read. At times I had a hard time keeping the people straight (in which generation is this Mary?) and wished the book had some graphical representations of the family tree. But it would be hard to do that and recognize all the people involved. Edie Lee Harris has identified over twenty-five thousand people in the Banneker-Lett line. And perhaps a tree would suggest more certainty about some relationships than documents can support. Still, Webster conveys a sense of connection with everyone on the Banneker-Lett family tree, and I finished the book with a feeling of admiration and loss. Admiration for the individuals whose stories have made it into the present time and loss for the ones whose names and lives are unknown. Admiration for the remarkable ingenuity of Benjamin Banneker, his parents, and grandparents, and loss because of what followed for his relatives and their descendents. Webster wrote that she hoped the book would be reparative in some way, and in telling these family stories, I think she succeeds in making some of what was lost come alive again.

Emily Updegraff

Emily is a Reviews Editor at Great Lakes Review.