Benjamin Banneker


This lesson uses Banneker’s biography to describe life in the early colonial period, the struggle for freedom by African Americans, and how others can positively influence a person’s life. Banneker is an inspiring and heroic figure that students will enjoy meeting in this lesson!

Included with this lesson are some adjustments or additions that you can make if you’d like, found in the “Options for Lesson” section of the Classroom Procedure page. One of the optional additions to this lesson is to give students a copy of an old-fashioned book, like Dear Benjamin Banneker by Andrea Davis Pinckney, and have them read from it.

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What our Benjamin Banneker lesson plan includes

Lesson Objectives and Overview: Benjamin Banneker explore this historical figure’s significance. At the end of the lesson, students will be able to use information about individuals and groups to analyze why they are seen as historically significant. They will also be able to use information about individuals to explore, explain, and better understand the times in which people live. This lesson is for students in 4th grade, 5th grade, and 6th grade.

Classroom Procedure

Every lesson plan provides you with a classroom procedure page that outlines a step-by-step guide to follow. You do not have to follow the guide exactly. The guide helps you organize the lesson and details when to hand out worksheets. It also lists information in the orange box that you might find useful. You will find the lesson objectives, state standards, and number of class sessions the lesson should take to complete in this area. In addition, it describes the supplies you will need as well as what and how you need to prepare beforehand. The supplies you will need for this lesson are pencils, pens, highlighters, and the handouts.

Options for Lesson

Included with this lesson is an “Options for Lesson” section that lists a number of suggestions for activities to add to the lesson or substitutions for the ones already in the lesson. One optional addition to this lesson is to show your students a short TedEd video about his life, linked in the Options for Lesson section. You could also give students a copy of an old-fashioned book, like Dear Benjamin Banneker by Andrea Davis Pinckney, and have them read from it.

Teacher Notes

The teacher notes page includes a paragraph with additional guidelines and things to think about as you begin to plan your lesson. This page also includes lines that you can use to add your own notes as you’re preparing for this lesson.


The Legacy of an Indentured Servant and Former Slave

The Benjamin Banneker lesson plan includes four content pages. The lesson begins by stating that the story of Benjamin Banneker’s life began before his birth. His grandmother, Molly Welsh, came to the United States as an indentured servant in 1863. Indentured servants were people who signed a contract to work, unpaid, for someone for a set number of years (often seven). In exchange for their work, they received a place to live and food. However, this arrangement was hard on the servants. They worked long hours and their lives were harsh.

Welsh’s employer accused her of stealing milk and she became an indentured servant as a result. Historians believe her employer falsely accused her. She likely just knocked over a pail of milk accidentally. In the 17th century, women had very few rights and her only option was to volunteer to be an indentured servant for a Maryland tobacco farmer in order to stay out of prison.

She completed her seven years of service in 1690, later earning enough money to buy a small farm. She bought, and later freed, two slaves to help her on the farm. Then, she married one of her former slaves, a man named Banneka, even though it was illegal to have an interracial marriage at this time. After they married, they changed their name from Banneka to Banneker. They had four daughters from 1710 to 1720, and one of those daughters, Mary, also married a former slave. He changed his name to Robert Banneker. Mary’s parents freed him so that he could marry their daughter.

Benjamin Banneker was born in Baltimore County in 1731. At this time, he was one of a few hundred freed slaves living in the country. His grandmother, Molly, taught him how to read and write. He was interested in math, science, and engineering, and wasn’t very interested in playing with friends. As a young man, they sent him to a one-room school. At this time, children worked on farms and didn’t spend much time at school. A Quaker teacher taught Banneker. This was his only formal education.

Quakers were religious people who had left England and settled in the northeastern part of the United States. they fled England to escape religious persecution. The Quakers did not own slaves because they believed that all people are created equal. They were pacifists, which means that they were against violence and war.

Banneker had a natural talent for learning. He invented a clock in 1753, which was his first invention. While clocks had already existed for a long time, most people in America didn’t own one because they were expensive to buy. Banneker made his clock almost entirely out of wood. It lasted for 40 years, until a fire destroyed it. This was just his first invention.

When Banneker was in his 40s, in 1775, the Americans were in a war for independence against the British. Because he was older, he did not fight in the war and instead stayed on his family farm, providing food for the army and other support as needed. He stayed on the farm even after the war had ended. He became famous for his love of astronomy over the next 40 years of his life. Banneker, using borrowed tools, almost predicted a solar eclipse. Later, he determined that his miscalculation was due to an error in the source of his data, and not his own calculations.

Banneker and Washington, D.C.

The United States temporarily moved their capital from New York to Philadelphia in 1791. Charles L’Enfant, an engineer, created the plans for the new capital city on the Potomac River. George Washington knew about L’Enfant because of this service during the Revolutionary War. However, L’Enfant was not great at communicating and Washington fired him. Banneker was his assistant at the time.

Washington replaced L’Enfant with a man named Major Andrew Ellicott. Ellicott knew Banneker because his family had lent Banneker some astronomy tools. His cousin was also Banneker’s neighbor. Banneker was able to reproduce many of the lost plans for the city from memory. Thomas Jefferson, who was. Secretary of State at the time, hired Banneker to help survey and plan the capital along with Ellicott. Banneker was in his sixties at the time! Banneker and Ellicott completed the plans together and share credit for the project.

Other Important Contributions

Banneker became known for his astronomy calculations, and we recognize him today as the first African-American astronomer. He published a scientific almanac in 1792 that people used in the U.S. and abroad for five years. He was also a successful tobacco farmer, having created an irrigation system that was an impressive feat of engineering.

Arguably his most important work was as an abolitionist. He published abolitionist materials in his almanac to promote the end of slavery. Many people were very mad at him for his abolitionist views, which were unpopular at the time. In 1791, he challenged Thomas Jefferson’s opinions about slavery. Jefferson responded via a letter, which Banneker published in his almanac along with his original letter to Jefferson.

Banneker died on his family farm in October 1809. He rented parts of the property to tenant farmers in his later years due to his poor health. He needed the money to keep the farm financially stable. On the day of his burial, his house, with all his inventions inside, burned down.


The Benjamin Banneker lesson plan includes three worksheets: an activity worksheet, a practice worksheet, and a homework assignment. You can refer to the guide on the classroom procedure page to determine when to hand out each worksheet.


For the activity worksheet, students will create a timeline of Banneker’s life. They will cut out each event and paste them next to the date in Banneker’s biography.


The practice worksheet asks students to read a paraphrased version of an excerpt from a letter Banneker wrote to Thomas Jefferson about the slaves that Jefferson owned and comments he had made about slavery generally. They will then answer three questions about the text.


For the homework assignment, students will compare and contrast Benjamin Banneker with Benjamin Franklin.

Worksheet Answer Keys

This lesson plan includes answer keys for the practice worksheet and the homework assignment. If you choose to administer the lesson pages to your students via PDF, you will need to save a new file that omits these pages. Otherwise, you can simply print out the applicable pages and keep these as reference for yourself when grading assignments.

Additional information


4th Grade, 5th Grade, 6th Grade


Biography, Social Studies

State Educational Standards

NCSS.D2.HIS.4.6-8, NCSS.D2.HIS.3.6-8, & NSSS.D2.HIS.14.3-5

Lessons are aligned to meet the education objectives and goals of most states. For more information on your state objectives, contact your local Board of Education or Department of Education in your state.