By Susan Saulny, Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, August 16 1996; Page A01, The Washington Post
When Howard County merchant George Ellicott, a white man, befriended legendary black scientist Benjamin Banneker in 1789, it broke all the rules of 18th-century race relations.
Ellicott provided books, scientific instruments and encouragement to his neighbor Banneker, a freeman whose self-taught knowledge of astronomy made him one of the most respected scientific minds of his era. Banneker, a tobacco farmer, used the stars to chart the boundaries of the 10-miles-square area that would become the District of Columbia.
When Banneker died in 1806, he bequeathed his possessions to the Ellicott family, and the rare writings have been stored safely for 190 years. But now Elizabeth Wilde, the Ellicott family member who inherited the documents and hundreds of other early American artifacts, plans to sell the collection to the highest bidders, a decision that frustrates Banneker historians, relatives and admirers.
Next month, more than 20 Banneker items will be sold at C.G. Sloan auction house in North Bethesda, along with more than 250 other artifacts, on orders from Wilde, 49, who lives in Indianapolis. She did not respond to repeated inquiries about her decision from The Post during the last week.
Wilde's marketing plan puts her at odds not only with Banneker's descendants but also with members of her own family who want the collection housed in a museum.
"We feel very strongly that these are treasures that belong to the world," said Gwen Marable, a descendant of Banneker's sister Jamimah and leader of an effort to launch a museum honoring the scientist. "To think that some private person would have these things hidden when all the world could enjoy them, that's saddening. . . . If [Wilde] cannot afford to give the items as a gift, she should withdraw them until we can find a person or organization that can help us buy them. Not having the objects will leave a great hole in our museum."
Ronald L. Sharps, executive director of the Maryland Commission on African American History and Culture, said scattering the Banneker collection among many owners at auction would be a major loss for historians.
"The future of the material is uncertain if it goes to auction," Sharps said.
"It would be hard to pull them back together for
educational or research purposes. And if the pieces are dispersed outside Maryland, we would see this as a loss, because Banneker was a Marylander."
Marable, a retired schoolteacher, is chairwoman of the Friends of the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum. The Baltimore-based organization began planning a Banneker museum in 1988 with $2.5 million in support from Baltimore County.
In the past month, members of Banneker's family have twice spoken by phone to Wilde and implored her without success to donate, lend or sell the items to the museum, Marable said. Numerous follow-up phone messages have gone unanswered, and Wilde has shown no sign of changing her mind, she said. That's particularly ironic because Wilde is more familiar than most people with the cultural value of such artifacts: She received formal training for a career as a museum curator, according to a cousin.
The auction remains set for Sept. 6, 7 and 8, the same week as the museum groundbreaking in Banneker's home community of Oella.
"It's unfortunate, and we are not in a position to play favorites," said Patrick O'Neill, a spokesman for the Sloan auction house. "I'm sure it would be nice for it to go to the Baltimore museum, but we have to do what we've been hired to do, which is present themerchandise for sale."
The collection includes artifacts from Banneker's farm one mile from Ellicott City, including early American maps, paintings, letters, deeds, diaries, candle molds, and the table where Banneker positioned his telescope, O'Neill said.
Banneker's grandmother, a former English indentured servant who married one of her freed slaves, taught young Benjamin to read, said Silvio Bedini, historian emeritus of the Smithsonian Institution and author of "The Life of Benjamin Banneker."
"Banneker wrote beautifully and also recorded unusual dreams," Bedini said. Some of the papers recording Banneker's dreams are in the collection.
"From a collector's point of view, taken separately as decorative items, they may look rather insignificant," O'Neill said. "But they are a time capsule of the way things were back then and, put into historical light, become quite interesting."
Wilde lived in Owings Mills until she moved about 25 years ago to Indiana, where she lives with her husband, Charles, and raised her two daughters.
Her third cousin, Samuel Hopkins, of Baltimore, says he found from "a
sampling" of other Ellicott descendants that the family agrees with Marable:
"The only appropriate place for the pieces is in a museum."
"We'd like very much for her to give them, but I didn't feel like pushing her to
do it," Hopkins said. "We like to keep peace in the family, but we do not agree
with her on this."
Banneker never married, and he had three sisters who eventually moved away and lost contact with the Ellicotts after their brother's death. Hopkins said that George Ellicott regarded Banneker's belongings "as a trust to be for the public benefit" but that Wilde has the final say "because she inherited it all."
He added: "I spoke to her some time ago about giving the pieces to the Maryland Historical Society. She didn't say anything, just changed the subject."
When Nancy Davis, chief curator for the historical society, called Wilde, she wound up speaking to Charles Wilde and expressed her disappointment about the auction.
"He seemed to be sympathetic to our great interest and said he would convey the message to his wife," Davis said. But she said she never heard back from anyone. "Our position is that we want to see these pieces stay in Maryland. It's not a question of which institution gets the material but that it stays in the state. We're willing to assist in any way that we can to keep the material here."
When the nation was new, the Ellicotts ran a flour mill and a general store on their homestead in a place that eventually became Ellicott City. Banneker's tobacco farm was nearby, and while in the store one day in 1789, Banneker, who was in his fifties, started a conversation with George Ellicott, who was 29 years younger. The two found common interest in science, math and literature and became friends.
Later, Banneker gained fame when he rejected Thomas Jefferson's written observations about the limited mental capacity of blacks.
To prove his point, Banneker sent Jefferson a copy of an annual almanac he published for farmers. "Jefferson was impressed," Bedini said.
The Ellicotts recommended Banneker to Jefferson for the job of defining the District's boundaries.
With or without the Wilde artifacts, the proposed Banneker park and museum "will go on," said Jean Walsh, a board member of the Banneker museum group.
"The Banneker-Ellicott friendship was unique in so many ways," Walsh said. "It's important that this legacy is preserved. Not only was this a friendship of a white man and a free black man, but [Banneker] became an example of what black men could accomplish."
@CAPTION: Gwen Marable, a relative of Benjamin Banneker, and Samuel Hopkins, a relative of George Ellicott, in the planned park.
@CAPTION: Items believed to have belonged to Benjamin Banneker and scheduled for
auction next month include a table, candlesticks and a candle mold, center.
ęCopyright 1996 The Washington Post Company
Thursday, August 22 1996; Page A30, The Washington Post
HISTORICAL MEMORY, no matter how much valued, always is vulnerable to circumstance. That's one sobering lesson in the current plight of a cache of artifacts that once belonged to Benjamin Banneker, a colonial-era free black man and a towering local historical figure -- a self-educated scientist who laid out the boundaries of the District and corresponded with Thomas Jefferson. Mr. Banneker's legacy could not be said to be neglected in this city, where his name graces a public school and other monuments, and knowledge of his accomplishments forms part of most residents' awareness. But plans to open a museum dedicated to his life have unhappily coincided with a decision by the present-day inheritors of his possessions -- a family now living in Indiana -- to sell them at auction in September.
Does it matter to an individual's legacy what becomes of a few tables, chairs, candlesticks and other humble objects he is known to have touched? Some might argue not, or point out -- with complete justice -- that the Ellicott family to whom he bequeathed his possessions have the right to dispose of them any way they see fit. The Ellicott descendant in question, Indianapolis resident Elizabeth Wilde, has the right to auction off the 20 or so artifacts for whatever they may bring, and she has not made any public statement as to what needs may have influenced the decision to do so. Still, if the objects are dispersed and the memory of Mr. Banneker stripped from them, the sale will be a sad one.
History and the emotion that gives it life, the sense of actual contact with lives and
sensibilities long past, are dependent at least
partly on the presence of real objects that those long-gone people are known to have touched and used. In an increasingly "virtual" world where information and entertainment can blur and even the world's best museums reach out to technology to help bring history alive, it's easy to forget that more elusive but thrilling contact brought on by the real thing.
"We feel very strongly that these are treasures that belong to the world,"
Banneker descendant and museum supporter Gwen Mara\ble said of the Banneker artifacts,
urging that the owners seek some way to keep the collection intact. Whether or not that
plea is heard by those selling the pieces at the auction, it would be a significant
investment in this area's own historical awareness if someone could be found -- or come
forward -- to keep the collection together.
ęCopyright 1996 The Washington Post Company
Museum Backers Taken Aback By D.C. Banker's Purchases
By Jon Jeter, Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 9 1996; Page B01, The Washington Post
The auction yesterday of a cache of artifacts formerly owned by Benjamin Banneker had all the elements of a slick suspense novel.
Supporters of a planned museum about the legendary black scientist had hoped to buy most, if not all, of Banneker's few remaining possessions with money they had raised since discovering that the Colonial-era treasures would be up for sale.
A mysterious man wearing a baseball cap thwarted their first few efforts, outbidding them on a Banneker manuscript. When the stranger bid $6,000 for a pair of candlesticks and molds once used by Banneker, no one was able to match his offer. When he bid $32,500 for a drop-leaf table on which Banneker once positioned his telescope, the north Bethesda auction house was buzzing. "Who is that man?" everyone wanted to know.
The stranger with the deep pockets was Emanuel Freedman, and, when the auction was over, he had dropped a cool $85,000 on the collection of artifacts. He single-handedly thwarted the museum supporters' efforts to round up the prized pieces. In the end, the contingent of supporters had managed to buy only a handwritten ledger once owned by Banneker, who helped to chart the boundaries of the area that would become the District of Columbia.
Freedman, a Washington investment banker, said he bought the pieces to donate to the African American Civil War Memorial, which is scheduled to open in Northwest Washington's Shaw community next year.
"I had no idea I was bidding against a consortium," Freedman said, referring to the network of historians, curators and groups that had banded to support the Banneker museum and bid on the artifacts. "I'm sure we can arrange a long-term loan" to the Banneker museum, he said, clearly embarrassed by all the attention.
"Of course we're disappointed," said Ronald L. Sharps, executive director of
the Maryland Commission on African American History, which tried to buy several items at
the auction. Sharps and others questioned why Freedman would buy Colonial-era artifacts
for a Civil War-period museum, but he said he would follow up on Freedman's offer to lend
out the artifacts.
It was the latest twist in a curious tale that began when the inheritor of Banneker's few remaining possessions, Elizabeth Wilde, of Indianapolis, announced plans to sell them to the highest bidder.
That was distasteful to museum supporters, who did not want to see the items scattered across the country. "These treasures belong to the world," said Gwen Marable, of Annapolis, a descendant of Banneker's sister, Jamimah, and a catalyst for efforts to open a museum honoring the scientist.
Unable to persuade Wilde to donate the artifacts to the museum or to withhold them from auction until the group could raise the money to buy them, Marable, Sharps and others raised money for the auction, including a $50,000 grant from the Maryland Historical Trust.
Bidding yesterday on nearly every piece was intense, and in many cases, the sale price
far exceeded estimates. Sharps said he and others initially believed the drop-leaf table
Freedman bought for $32,500 would sell for $10,000 to $15,000.
"New York has Jackie O. We have Benjamin B.," said Patrick S. O'Neil, a representative of Sloan's, the auction house that sold the artifacts. "This far exceeded any interest that we've had here for many years."
The dedication for the African American Civil War Memorial is this week, Freedman said. His investment banking firm is a sponsor, and although Banneker died in 1806, nearly six decades before the Civil War, the Banneker artifacts were too good to pass up, he said.
"We want to make these artifacts available to everyone," he said.
@CAPTION: Anita De'Anselme, of Sloan's auction house, displays items put up for bid by
auctioneer Patrick S. O'Neil.
ęCopyright 1996 The Washington Post Company
Ted - this from the usenet group. BTW - I have made a link to the African American
Civil War Memorial activities reported on CV-SPAN (1 or 2) in the AFROMASEO webpage ....
Have a great quarter! Later. Michel
PS - did you see any article in the Washinton Post concerning the Banneker story ?
Article: 299491 of soc.culture.african.american
Subject: CULTURAL UPDATE - BANNEKER ARTIFACTS SOLD AT AUCTION
Date: 10 Sep 1996 04:09:02 GMT
Organization: AT&T WorldNet Services
The Banneker artifacts was sold at auction Sept. 8, 1996. The collection (except for one item) was sold to Mr. Emanuel Freeman, a Washington, DC investment banker, bought the collection for a cool $85,000. Mr. Freeman purchased the items to donate to the African American Civil War Memorial, which is scheduled to open in Washington, DC next year. Mr. Freeman stated that he had no idea that he was bidding against a consortium. A decendant of Banneker's sister, Gwen Marable, had hoped to purchase the collection for the Benjamin Banneker Museum, located in Baltimore, MD, with funds she and others had raised. Monies raised included a $50,000 grant from the Maryland Historical Trust,however, she was only able to purchase one item.
The collection was put up for auction by its owner Mrs. Elizabeth Wilde who inhereted the collection from her family. Mrs. Wilde has not commented on why she decided to dispose of the collection by way of auction and not through a donation or sale to the Benjemin Banneker Museum.
The Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum held its opening ceremony on June 9, 1998. Descendants of the BANNEKER/LETT family were present. F. Y. I., Benjamin Banneker's sister, Jemima, married a LETT.
A second edition of the book, The Life of Benjamin Banneker: The First African American Man of Science, by Sylvio A. Bedini will be available August 1998. Pre-publication discount available through Maryland Historical Publications, Maryland Historical Society, 201 W. Monument Street, Baltimore, MD 21201.
"Don't worry about the changes in the key just play within the range of the idea"
The opinions expressed herein are those of my own
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