Houghton Mifflin Social Studies
America Will Be

Understanding Primary Sources:
Benjamin Banneker's Letter to Thomas Jefferson

Objective: Students read and analyze excerpts from a letter from scientist Benjamin Banneker to Thomas Jefferson challenging Jefferson's view of African Americans. Students will write letters on the subject in their own words.

What You Need:

Suggested Time:
2-4 hours over 2-3 days

Building Background:
Remind students that in the late 1700s and early 1800s, about one-eighth of all African Americans in the United States were free. These free African Americans lived both in northern cities and in the upper South. They worked in a variety of occupations: sailors, shoemakers, porters, laborers, house servants, mechanics. One of the most successful free African Americans of that time period was Benjamin Banneker, a surveyor, an astronomer, and weather predictor. In 1791, Benjamin Banneker wrote a letter to Thomas Jefferson, who was then the Secretary of State, making a forceful and powerful argument against slavery. Tell students they will read excerpts from this letter and identify the ways in which Banneker developed his argument and challenged Jefferson to live up to his stated beliefs.

What To Do:

1. Distribute copies of the Excerpts from a Letter from Benjamin Banneker to Thomas Jefferson and the What Did He Say? worksheet to each student. You can also find the original text, with images, at this Internet site:

Benjamin Banneker to the secretary of state
The complete text of the letter is available online from the University of Virginia, as well as images of the original handwritten letter.

2. Read the excerpts from the letter aloud, stopping often to review any words or expressions that students do not understand. Then have students reread the excerpts and answer the questions in the worksheet.

3. Review and discuss students' answers to the worksheet questions. Ask students to suggest modern equivalents to the words and phrases Banneker used.

4. Using the excerpts from Banneker's letter as a guide, have students write their own letters to Thomas Jefferson. Have them restate in their own words Banneker's arguments against slavery and for equality for African Americans. When finished, have students read their letters aloud. Encourage the class to discuss students' choices of words and phrases.

5. Send students to the library to learn more about Benjamin Banneker's life and work. Possible sources include encyclopedias and biographies. "Dear Benjamin Banneker" by Andrea Davis Pinkey has information about Benjamin Banneker, as well as excerpts of the letter. If you have access to the Internet, you can check out this site for more information:

Benjamin Banneker: Mathematician, Astronomer

This site provides a short biography of Banneker as well as extensive bibliographic sources.

6. Have students write a short paragraph describing Banneker's life and work.

Discuss with students the main ideas in Banneker's letter to Jefferson. Then ask students to list Banneker's accomplishments.


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