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Meet Benjamin Banneker, the Black Scientist Who Discovered Cicadas

Benjamin Banneker was a renowned polymath, astronomer, almanac author, and Black intellectual who first documented Cicadas in 1749.

Apart from a bronze statue of Bannecker, standing outside a Maryland museum, not much is known about this great scientist, and certainly not enough credit is given for his feat.

Earlier this year, billions of red-eyed, black-winged cicadas swarm the United States for the first time in 17 years. During one of his official outings, the president’s flight, the president’s flight was even delayed to the invasion, and he was caught on camera jokingly saying, ‘watch out for the Cicadas, it got me,’ after he was bitten on the neck by one.

The emergence and life span are exciting. The inserts, otherwise known as Brood X, emerge from their mysterious underground retreat every 17 years. When they do, they take control and put on a remarkable —and noisy—show, molting, mating, and dying within a few weeks.

As the Cicadas took over many parts of eastern United States, not many locals were surprised – except those less than 17 years of cause. But at least they were expected – thanks to the documentation on Cicadas by Benjamin Banneker in 1749.

In 1749, a young Benjamin Banneker (1731–1806) witnessed a different crowd of cicadas throng and “sing” on his 100-acre Maryland homestead. He observed the Cicadas, writing down observations about the strange insects whenever they reappeared. He would track the bug’s life cycle and accurately predict the brood’s return in 1800.

In doing so, historian Cassandra Good says Banneker was the first scientist to observe and chart the cicada’s bizarre 17-year life cycle. But as researchers—and married couple—Asamoah Nkwanta and Janet E. Barber argued in the Journal of Humanistic Mathematics in 2014, Banneker rarely receives credit for this remarkable scientific feat.

According to Billy Jean Louis of the Baltimore Sun, Asamoah Nkwanta points out that Banneker’s identity as a Black man has “absolutely” played a role in this oversight.

“We have a long way to go with correcting U.S. history in a sense [of] getting the correct history out there, so we all [can] be well-informed of the past,” the scholar tells the Sun.

According to Louis Keene in a report for the White House Historical Association’s Slavery in the President’s Neighborhood initiative, Banneker was one with a humble beginning like many other Blacks at that time.

Born in 1731 to Mary, a free woman of mixed racial heritage, and Robert Bannaky, a formerly enslaved Black man, Banneker grew up on his parents’ homestead near Baltimore, according to the Benjamin Banneker Historical Park and Museum.

He was a voracious learner, tutored in reading and writing by his grandmother, an Irish-born former indentured servant. He would continue his education at a one-room Quaker schoolhouse alongside Black and white peers.

In his 20s, Banneker hand-carved a wooden clock that kept precise time, cementing his status as a local celebrity renowned for his mechanical skill and intellect. Per the Library of Congress, he went on to study astronomy and accurately predict a 1789 solar eclipse.

Opting not to marry or have children, the talented polymath made his living publishing popular almanacs replete with sophisticated astronomical predictions. He also participated in a survey project that outlined the future Federal Territory of Washington, D.C.

“The first great Locust year that I can remember was 1749,” Banneker recalled. “I was then about seventeen years of age when thousands of them came and was creeping up the trees and bushes. I then imagined they came to eat and destroy the fruit of the Earth and would occasion a famine in the land. I, therefore, began to kill and destroy them but soon saw that my labor was in vain, therefore gave over my pretension.”

He went on to describe the cicada events of 1766 and 1783, which he also witnessed, and venture a suggestion that “their periodical return is Seventeen years, but they, like the Comets, make but a short stay with us.” Banneker then (accurately) predicted that the cicadas would once again return that very same year.

Sadly, very few written records of Banneker’s life remain, in part because a fire burned down his house just days after his funeral in 1806. But key pieces of his writing have endured the test of time: In 1791, for instance, Banneker included a handwritten advance copy of his almanac in an impassioned letter to then-Secretary of State to Thomas Jefferson.

Arguing in defense of the intellectual capacities of Black people, the naturalist decried the institution of slavery and pointed out Jefferson’s hypocrisy as someone who both penned the Declaration of Independence and enslaved people. Banneker went on to note the irony “that you should at the same time be found guilty of that most criminal act, which you professedly detested in others, concerning yourselves.” (Jefferson is estimated to have enslaved more than 600 people during his lifetime.)

Per the National Archives, Jefferson had publicly speculated that Black people were intellectually inferior to white people. In writing this letter, Banneker became “the first and only [Black] man to challenge [Jefferson’s] suspicion directly during his lifetime.” Jefferson eventually responded with a short but polite note; their correspondence was published in various forms by anti-slavery advocates.

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