Benjamin Banneker

Banneker, Benjamin 2017

Benjamin Banneker was born on November 9, 1731 (to October 9, 1806). He was an important Colonial American scientist, mathematician, astronomer, inventor, and publisher.

Benjamin Banneker was born in Baltimore County, Maryland to Mary Banneky, the biracial daughter of Molly Welsh and her former slave, Banneka. Little is known about Benjamin’s father, Robert, a first generation slave who had fled his owner. There are plenty of inconsistencies in the history of Benjamin Banneker, and many of these involve his ancestry. His maternal grandmother, said to be Molly Welsh, was a white Englishwoman who came to the United States, purchased two slaves, and then liberated and married one of them, a man named Banneka, whom she purchased to help establish a farm located near the future site of Ellicott’s Mills. Their daughter, who also married a slave, was Banneker’s mother. None of Banneker’s surviving papers describe a white ancestor or identify the name of his grandmother. The first published description of Molly Welsh as having come from Europe was based on interviews with Molly’s descendants that took place during and after 1836, long after the deaths of both Molly and Benjamin.

From a very young age, Banneker was taught reading and religion by his grandmother. He met and befriended Peter Heinrichs, a Quaker farmer who established a school near Banneker’s family farm. Heinrichs shared his personal library with Banneker, and provided his only known classroom instruction. Quakers were leaders in the anti-slavery movement, and advocates of racial equality in accordance with their “Testimony of Equality” belief. Banneker was, however, largely self-taught, and showed a great propensity for mathematics and an astounding mechanical ability. Later, he was forced to leave school to work the family farm, but he continued to be an avid reader. Banneker spent the majority of his life at that farm, and was named on the deed in 1737.

Although he had no previous training, Benjamin Banneker used a pocket watch he had borrowed as a model, and carved wooden replicas of each piece to create a clock that struck hourly. He completed the clock in 1753, at the age of 22, and that timepiece continued to work until his death.

In 1771, a white Quaker family, the Ellicotts, moved into the area and built mills along the Patapsco River. Banneker supplied their workers with food, and studied the mills. In 1788, he began his more formal study of astronomy, using books and equipment that George Ellicott lent to him. The following year, Banneker sent George Ellicott his work on a solar eclipse. In February 1791, Major Andrew Ellicott, a member of the same family, hired Banneker to assist in the initial survey of the boundaries of the 100-square-mile federal district (today known as the District of Columbia) that Maryland and Virginia would cede to the federal government for the establishment of the nation’s capital.

Because of illness and the difficulties in helping to survey the area at the age of 59, Banneker left the boundary survey in April 1791, and returned to his home at Ellicott’s Mills to work on an ephemeris. Banneker made astronomical calculations that predicted solar and lunar eclipses, and those calculations were included in a six-year series of almanacs, “Almanack and Ephemeris,” which were printed and sold in six cities in four states from 1792 to 1797. He also kept a series of journals that contained his notebooks for astronomical observations and his diary. The notebooks additionally contained a number of mathematical calculations and puzzles.

James McHenry, a signer of the 1787 United States Constitution and self-described friend of Banneker, wrote a preface to the almanac, and they were heavily promoted by the Society for the Promotion of the Abolition of Slavery of Maryland and of Pennsylvania. William Wilberforce and other prominent abolitionists praised Banneker and his works in the House of Commons of Great Britain.

Benjamin Banneker expressed his views on slavery and racial equality in a letter to Thomas Jefferson, and in other documents that he placed within his 1793 almanac. The almanac contained copies of his correspondence with Jefferson, poetry by the African American poet Phillis Wheatley, and by the English anti-slavery poet William Cowper, as well as anti-slavery speeches and essays from both England and America.

In the letter, Banneker accused Jefferson of criminally using fraud and violence to oppress his slaves by stating, “Sir, how pitiable is it to reflect, that although you were so fully convinced of the benevolence of the Father of Mankind, and of his equal and impartial distribution of these rights and privileges, which he hath conferred upon them, that you should at the same time counteract his mercies, 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.”

Because of declining sales, Banneker’s last almanac was published in 1797. After selling much of his farm to the Ellicotts and others, he died in his log cabin nine years later on October 9, 1806, just before his 75th birthday. His chronic alcoholism, which worsened as he aged, may have contributed to his death. A commemorative obelisk that the Maryland Bicentennial Commission and the State Commission on Afro American History and Culture erected in 1977 stands near his unmarked grave in an Oella, Maryland, churchyard. In 1980, the U.S. Post Office issued a Black Heritage commemorative stamp in his honor.

Benjamin Banneker never married, and is not known to have had any liaisons with women. In one of his early essays, he stated that poverty, disease, and violence are more tolerable than the “pungent stings…which guilty passions dart into the heart,” prompting some historians to view him as most probably homosexual. According to “Gay & Lesbian Biography,” Banneker’s “self-isolation and love of drink is sometimes cited as at least a partial explanation for his lifelong bachelorhood. But his grandmother, parents, and sisters were known to be people of considerable Christian dominance, and he always lived under their supervision.” Banneker, whose name is included on The Blacklist, lived in an era when discussions of intimacy were forbidden and considered sinful. Also, as he grew older, Banneker regularly read the Bible, the teachings of which may have helped quash any same-gender passions.

We remember Benjamin Banneker in appreciation of his brilliant and enduring contributions to our community.

Nona Hendryx

Hendryx, Nona 2017 by Marc Baptiste
Photo: Marc Baptiste

Nona Hendryx was born on October 9, 1944. She is a celebrated American vocalist, record producer, songwriter, musician, children’s book author, and actress. Hendryx is best known as part of the hit trio Labelle. Her music has ranged from soul, funk, dance, and R&B to hard rock, art rock, gospel and world music.

Nona Hendryx was born in Trenton, New Jersey; her heritage is West African on her mother’s side, Ethiopian and Native American on her father’s, “and some Scottish.” She met fellow New Jersey native Sarah Dash, and later connected with Philadelphia-born singer Patricia Holte (Patti LaBelle). During the girl group era of the early 1960s, the trio began as a quartet doo-wop group, Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles, and included LaBelle, Hendryx, Dash, and Cindy Birdsong, who joined the group to become the fourth member when they signed their first deal with Newtown Records.

Patti LaBelle and the Bluebelles released their debut hit, “I Sold My Heart to the Junkman” in 1962. The group became known for their emotional live performances, and their renditions of classic standards such as “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” “Over the Rainbow,” and “Danny Boy.” They often found themselves competing against other girl groups such as The Chantels, The Shirelles, and The Supremes. In 1967, Hendryx, LaBelle, and Dash were surprised to learn that Birdsong had secretly joined the Supremes after Florence Ballard was ousted from the group by Motown. Different members of the group were in touch with Birdsong over the years, and the relationships with the remaining Bluebelles healed in time for the group receiving an R&B Foundation Lifetime Achievement Award in 1999.

From 1967 through 1970, the group struggled to compete against the changing musical landscape. In 1971, they moved to England, where they had a cult fan base, and changed their name to Labelle. Releasing albums including “LaBelle” (1971) and “Moon Shadow” (1972), the group recorded an edgier sound with political and sexual overtones—quite uncommon for an all-woman Black group. Shortly after releasing “Labelle,” they became the opening act for the band The Who, and opened and sang backup for Laura Nyro.

Following the release of “Moon Shadow,” Hendryx became the chief songwriter for most of the group’s records. After successfully opening for The Rolling Stones during the band’s American tour in 1973, Labelle released “Pressure Cookin’,” and Hendryx wrote powerful ballads and a wealth of more uptempo songs. Her themes were unconventional, diverse, and often experimental. Her composition, “A Man in a Trenchcoat (Voodoo)” also marked Hendryx’s first time singing lead vocal on an album. In 1974, the group hit gold with the release of “Nightbirds” following their smash hit, “Lady Marmalade,” about a New Orleans prostitute.

LaBelle disbanded in 1976, with Patti LaBelle attributing the band’s breakup to musical and personal tensions within the group. Labelle, Dash, and Hendryx all embarked on solo careers. Hendryx fans would welcome the split, as she embarked upon an impressive solo career, spanning eight albums, several top ten hits, and a Grammy nomination. Her albums remained edgy, provocative, and full of double entendres, with hits including “Bustin’ Out” and “Why Should I Cry?”

In 1977, Hendryx released her first solo album containing the tracks “Winning” (later recorded by Santana) and the ballad “Leaving Here Today.” It failed to sell as well as had been hoped, and Hendryx was dropped from Epic Records. Subsequently, she recorded four singles for Arista (London), which also escaped chart success. She did find success doing session work during this period, most notably providing background vocals for Talking Heads, and appearing first at the major Heatwave festival in August of 1980. She contributed to the song “Checkmate” on Dusty Springfield’s album, “It Begins Again,” in 1978.

In the early 1980s, Hendryx fronted her own progressive art-rock group, Zero Cool, and recorded with the experimental funk group, “Material,” achieving a giant club hit with “Busting Out.” She had two other major club hits soon after: a dance remake of The Supremes’ “Love Is Like An Itching In My Heart,” and, “Do What You Wanna Do” by The Cage. The group Material also produced her second album, “Nona,” in 1983. The single “Keep It Confidential” and a remix of “B-boys” hit the dance charts. “Transformation” became a Hendryx staple, and another particularly noteworthy track is the ballad “Design For Living,” featuring Laurie Anderson, Gina Shock, Valerie Simpson, Tina Weymouth, Nancy Wilson of Heart, and former bandmate Patti LaBelle.

In the mid-1980s, Hendryx was recruited by RCA to record songs for various soundtracks, including the theme for “Moving Violations.” “I Sweat (Going Through the Motions)” was a hit for Hendryx from the Jamie Lee Curtis film, “Perfect,” as was “Transparent” from the Eddie Murphy film, “Coming To America.” Her album, “The Art Of Defense,” was released in 1984.

In 1985, Hendryx wrote and recorded the Grammy-nominated “Rock This House” with Keith Richards, from her album “The Heat.” That same year, the MTV broadcast of the video “I Need Love” stirred some controversy for featuring drag queens. As a result, it was quickly removed from MTV’s playlist. In the same year, Hendryx took part in the Artists United Against Apartheid project with the song “Sun City,” recorded with other artists such as Bruce Springsteen, Little Steven, Bono, Eddie Kendricks, Hall & Oates, Bobby Womack, Lou Reed, and many others.

Hendryx’s biggest commercial success came with 1987’s single, “Why Should I Cry?” a top 5 R&B hit which also reached #58 on the Billboard 100. The accompanying album, “Female Trouble,” featured Peter Gabriel, Prince, George Clinton, David Van Tieghem, and Mavis Staples. Around this time, Hendryx became a member of the Black Rock Coalition, founded by Vernon Reid of Living Colour. Other artists with whom she has recorded with over the years include: David Johansen, Yoko Ono, Cameo, Talking Heads, Garland Jeffreys, Dan Hartman, Afrika Bambaata, Boy George, Rough Trade, Curtis Hairston, and Graham Parker.

Since the breakup of Labelle, Patti, Sarah, and Nona have reunited on occasion, including Patti LaBelle’s “Live In New York” video, the dance hit “Turn It Out” from the soundtrack of “To Wong Foo, Thanks for Everything! Julie Newmar,” and two television specials. In January 2006, Labelle again reunited to record “Dear Rosa,” a tribute to civil rights leader Rosa Parks. Labelle also performed the theme song for the soundtrack for the film “Preaching to the Choir,” with Hendryx being the composer of the film’s soundtrack. In late 2008, Labelle released their comeback album, “Back to Now,” and went on a successful concert tour that carried through the spring of 2009.

Hendryx has also dabbled in acting, and even authored a children’s book, “The Brownies.” She was one of the first artists to agree to perform at the first New York City Gay Men’s Health Crisis (GMHC) Dance-a-thon, created to raise funds to support people living with HIV/AIDS. This led other artists to give their time and talent to the organization, eventually raising millions of dollars.

In 2001, Hendryx discussed her bisexuality in an interview with “The Advocate,” and has become an outspoken gay rights activist over the years. In the summer of 2008, she joined Cyndi Lauper on her “True Colors” tour, raising awareness of discrimination and support for the LGBTQ community. In 2017, the Philadelphia Music Walk of Fame added Patti LaBelle, Sarah Dash, and Nona Hendryx.

Hendryx continues to perform, and remains a longtime resident of the Upper West Side of Manhattan.

We thank Nona Hendryx for sharing her remarkable journey through music, entertainment, and social activism with the world, and for her many contributions to our community.