There is no doubt that Benjamin Banneker was a remarkable man and I argued in an earlier blog post that he should be considered among the Founding Fathers. Since March is Women’s History Month, I thought it would be great to write about his grandmother, Molly Bannaky. Her story was memorialized in a children’s book published about 18 years ago. She was a milkmaid in England convicted of theft because of a spilled pail of milk. Fortunately, she was able to avoid being hanged for theft because she knew how to read, and therefore she was eligible to be transported to the American colonies as an indentured servant.
She arrived in Maryland in 1683, worked as a laborer for seven years until her indenture was up, eventually started her own tobacco plantation, bought slaves, married one of them named Bannaky, and in time became the grandmother of Benjamin Banneker. Overcoming hardships on her own with no training and no support and then turning her back on “white” society to live with her husband’s disadvantaged culture would make Molly a remarkable woman.
The problem is that there’s not much hard evidence that she ever existed. For instance, legend has it that she taught Benjamin to read. But he never mentioned her. Her story comes down through time via oral traditions that may have been embellished or entirely fabricated.
This makes her a great candidate for historical fiction. I’ve been reading a master’s thesis by Sandra Perot that argues against the validity of many of the myths around Molly. As someone accustomed to making things up, I can fabricate a lot of scenarios that could make the myths reality, or at least much more plausible.
Writing the story of what Molly might have experienced will require a great deal of research so I haven’t yet delved into it, but I hope to start before too long. In the meantime, we can salute the women in Benjamin Banneker’s life who helped mold him into the remarkable man he turned out to be, whoever they were. Like so many remarkable women, their names may be lost, but their legacy lives on.
Today, as we commemorate Maryland Day, the day British colonists landed to found the colony of Maryland, we should remember that many of those early settlers did not come here by choice. Nevertheless, they worked hard and the colony would not have succeeded without them.
Molly’s story, as I originally learned of it in the children’s book Molly Bannaky by Alice McGill, provided the inspiration for one of the characters in my first book, Langley’s Choice. Like Molly, my character rejects white society to be with a negro slave, and she faces the possibility of severe legal punishment for miscegenation, the “crime” of being in a mixed race relationship.
The master’s thesis I’ve been reading is “Reconstructing Molly Welsh: Race, Memory and the Story of Benjamin Banneker’s Grandmother” available online here: http://scholarworks.umass.edu/theses/210/
The photo above is from the reconstructed cabin at Banneker Historical Park. For more information, visit https://friendsofbenjaminbanneker.com