Benjamin Banneker — who was born a free Black man in Baltimore County in 1731 ― is known mostly as an astronomer and mathematician, who also penned a letter to Thomas Jefferson about race relations in the U.S.
But researchers Asamoah Nkwanta and his wife, Janet Barber, who spent a decade researching Banneker’s work, said he has not been credited for being among the first Americans to document the life span of cicadas — the insect swarm that’s due to make its once-in-17-years appearance in the coming weeks.
Banneker was born to Mary Banneky, whose parents were of mixed heritage, and Robert Banneker, a former slave. Benjamin was self-taught and died at 75 in 1806.
Banneker’s first experience with cicadas was at 17 in 1749 — according to a report Nkwanta and Barber completed seven years ago — when he noticed thousands of insects in the trees and bushes.
“I then imagined they came to eat and destroy the fruit of the Earth, and would occation a famine in the land,” reads an excerpt from Banneker’s journal. “I therefore began to kill and destroy them, but soon saw that my labor was in vain, therefore gave over my pretension.”
This large brood of the species reemerges every 17 years.
“I then, being about thirty-four years of age had more sense than to endeavor to destroy them, knowing they were not so pernicious to the fruit of the Earth,” the journal passage continued.
Those recurrences provided enough evidence for Banneker — whose findings can be found in several libraries, including Morgan State University, Howard University and the Maryland Center for History and Culture — to draw a conclusion.
“Their periodical return is 17 years, but they, like the Comets, make but a short stay with us — the female has a sting in her tail as sharp and hard as a thorn, with which she perforates the branches of the trees, and in them holes lays eggs,” Banneker wrote in his journal.
“The branch soon dies and falls, then the egg by some occult cause immerges a great depth into the earth and there continues for the space of 17 years.”
Cicadas are not harmful, although the female has a stinger, said Barber, an independent research writer and regional program director for Charles Houston Community Writers in Alexandria, Virginia.
She and her husband moved to Temple Hills 31 years ago from Inglewood, California, and experienced cicadas in 2004. The couple in grade school learned about Banneker’s accomplishments, including his wooden clock and almanacs. But after realizing locusts also were referred to as cicadas, they decided to delve into Banneker’s journal, which contained his observations and documentation of the cicadas’ life over many years.
“What piqued my interest was not only the science behind the cicadas, but also the fact that people call it a different name,” Barber said. “I wanted to look at this man as he grew [from] a teenager to his older years. The things we found were fascinating ― especially when we went to visit his home in Ellicott [City].”
Cicadas, one of the longest living insects, also can emerge every 13 years, including in Maryland, and scientists have yet to figure out what causes the discrepancy, said Nkwanta, chair and professor of mathematics at Morgan State University. This year is the 17-year cycle for the large Brood X of cicadas. Other than Maryland, they’ll also emerge in New Jersey, North Carolina, New York, Illinois, Indiana and Kentucky, among other states.
Banneker’s contribution to cicada studies “absolutely” has been overlooked because he’s Black, Nkwanta said. No one has been credited with figuring out the cicada life cycle, but multiple writers and observers, including Thomas Jefferson, have noted the recurring appearance of the species, Barber said.
“[This means] that we have a long way to go with correcting U.S. history in a sense that getting the correct history out there, so we all would be well-informed of the past,” said Nkwanta, who is Black.
“I would hope that more people become aware of Banneker’s contribution to this area of science,” he said Tuesday. “I did a search this morning and found articles that referenced Banneker and the cicadas. When we were doing the research 17 years ago, there was no link to that — very few connections on the web.”
Barber, who’s also Black, echoed Nkwanta.
“We have a history, but all of it is not told — all the way from science to the medical field,” she said.
The journal in which Banneker noted his cicada observations was gifted to the then Maryland Historical Society in 1987 by a descendant of the Ellicott family, according to Catherine Mayfield, France-Merrick Director of the H. Furlong Baldwin Library.
Banneker and George Ellicott were neighbors. Ellicott, who also liked astronomy, was a land surveyor, according to the White House Historical Association.
Mayfield, who is Filipina American, also said Banneker’s research on cicadas is not well-known.
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“There were many more of his writings that were destroyed at the time [his house burned],” she said. “I think about what other stories that are missing that are not documented that we don’t know about.”