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Part 1: 1450-1750
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Part 3: 1791-1831
Part 4: 1831-1865

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Historical Document
Banneker's letter to Jefferson
1791

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Click here for the text of this historical document.

On August 19, 1791, Benjamin Banneker wrote a lengthy letter to Thomas Jefferson, then Secretary of State, in which "having taken up my pen in order to direct to you as a present, a copy of an Almanack... I was unexpectedly and unavoidably led" to develop a discourse on race and rights.

Banneker made it a point to "freely and Cheerfully acknowledge, that I am of the African race." Though not himself a slave, Banneker encouraged Jefferson to accept "the indispensable duty of those who maintain for themselves the rights of human nature," by ending the "State of tyrannical thraldom, and inhuman captivity, to which too many of my brethren are doomed."

Appealing to Jefferson's "measurably friendly and well-disposed" attitude toward blacks, Banneker presumed that he would "readily embrace every opportunity to eradicate that train of absurd and false ideas and opinions which so generally prevail with respect to us."

After acknowledging that by writing to Jefferson he was taking "a liberty which Seemed to me scarcely allowable," considering "the almost general prejudice and prepossession which is so prevalent in the world against those of my complexion," Banneker launched into a critical response to Jefferson's published ideas about the inferiority of blacks.

With restrained passion, Banneker chided Jefferson and other framers of the Declaration of Independence for the hypocrisy "in detaining by fraud and violence so numerous a part of my brethren under groaning captivity and cruel oppression, that you should at the Same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, with respect to yourselves."

Citing Jefferson's own words from the Declaration -- the "Self-Evident" truth "that all men are created equal" -- Banneker challenged Jefferson and his fellows "to wean yourselves from those narrow prejudices which you have imbibed with respect to" African Americans.




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Related Entries:
Jefferson's reply to Banneker
Benjamin Banneker
Benjamin Banneker's Almanac





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