Designing D.C.

Just to settle a point of contention that arose at tonight's party:

Not only did a Frenchman design the American capital, but a free black man may have secured the construction of the city, which was to take place in the middle of the two largest slave-holding states in the union, Maryland and Virginia.

Although [Major Pierre Charles] L'Enfant's design became the basis for landsales, construction and planning, President Washington fired him a year after he was hired because, according to Encyclopedia Americana, L'Enfant "forged ahead regardless of his orders, the budget, or landowners with prior claims."

He took his plans for D.C. with him to France, but renowned mathematician, astronomer and publisher Benjamin Banneker, who was assisting commissioner Andrew Ellicott in the survey of the site, saved the project by reproducing the plans in their entirety from memory, according to The African American Almanac.

...Bob and Jane Freundel Levey, authors of The Washington Post's "Washington Album," called the claims "local legend."

...The self-taught Banneker farmed until rheumatism made it impossible, but retirement at middle age allowed him to take up mathematics and astronomy in earnest, said Jim Horton, professor of American civilization and history in The George Washington University's American Studies department.

In 1791 Andrew Ellicott, who took over L'Enfant's position in 1792 when he was fired, asked Banneker, then 60, to help him survey the area for the national capital - a fact historians, authors, encyclopedias and diversity council members agree on.

During the first three months of the survey, Banneker occupied the field observatory tent, maintaining and correcting the regular clock each day and each night making observations and recordings of the transit stars, which Ellicott used the following day in his survey of the land. Recently discovered records of the survey show Banneker was paid $60 - about $600 in 2000 - for his participation and the costs of his travel.

Arnebeck is careful to distinguish Banneker's surveying the land from his helping L'Enfant to design it.

From Washington DC City Pages history.

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This page contains a single entry by Milligan published on September 18, 2005 12:38 AM.

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