Benjamin Banneker began tracking cicadas almost 300 years ago

#CicadaMania

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Benjamin Banneker began tracking Brood X cicada appearances in 1749. (Courtesy Photo)

By Micha Green
AFRO D.C. and Digital Editor
mgreen@afro.com

As their last hurrah before mating then dying weeks later, up to 1.4 million Brood X cicadas per acre are expected to emerge in May 2021 after 17 years of development underground. They come in droves and die in a little over a month, but it’s a cicada cycle of life that covers the Northern region, including the D.M.V.  

Benjamin Banneker, to whom D.C.’s design can largely be attributed, and who was an astronomer, mathematician and publisher was tracking the Brood X cicadas when he was a teenager back in 1749.

“The first great locust year I remember was in 1949. I was then about seventeen years of age, when thousands of them came and were creeping up the trees and bushes.  I then imagined they came to eat and destroy the fruit of the earth, and would occasion in a famine in the land,” Banneker said back in April of 1800.  “I therefore began to kill and destroy them, but soon saw that was my labour in vain, and therefore gave over my pretension.  Again in the year 1766, which is seventeen years after their first appearance they made a second, and appeared to me to be full as numerous as the first.”

“I then, being about [34] years of age, had more sense than to endeavor to destroy them, knowing they were not to be so pernicious to the fruit of the earth as I imagined they would be.  Again in the year 1783, which was seventeen years since their second appearance to me, which made their third; and they may be expected again in the year 1800, which is seventeen years since their third appearance to me,” Banneker added.

Banneker’s tracking of patterns in the earth is nothing new, as he was known for his almanac, among other contributions to the founding of this nation.  

Born a free African American in Baltimore, Banneker was formally educated, but mostly self-taught.  His pattern tracking made for Banneker’s acclaim, leading his involvement in making astronomical observations in order to establish boundaries and plans for the nation’s capital in 1791.  Legend has it that Banneker was also so brilliant that when French architect Pierre L’enfant, who was largely touted as the District’s designer, he remembered the Frenchman’s plans by heart and successfully and effectively reproduced them.

On August 19, 1791, Bannker wrote a letter to President Thomas Jefferson addressing the hypocrisy in enslaving Africans while the United States fought for its own independence from the British.  Perhaps a mix of a clout boost and a gesture in good faith, Banneker added a preview of his 1892 almanac in his letter chiding Jefferson.

Jefferson made it clear he respected Banneker’s admonishment and the added almanac.  

“I thank you sincerely for your letter of the 19th and for the Almanac it contained. [Nobody] wishes more than I do to see such proofs as you exhibit, that nature has given to our Black brethren, talents equal to those of the other colours of men, and that the appearance of a want of them isn’t owing merely to the degraded conditioning of their existence both in Africa and America,” Jefferson wrote. “I have taken the liberty of sending your almanac to Monsieur de Condorcet, Secretary of the Academy of sciences at Paris, and member of the Philanthropic society because I considered it as a document to which your whole colour had a right for their justification against the doubts which have been entertained of them. I am with great esteem, Sir, Your most [obedient, humble servant]. Th. Jefferson”

By 1800, when Bannker wrote about the cicadas, he was widely known for his excellent and accurate understanding of mathematics and the earth’s patterns.

Banneker never married nor had children and days after his funeral his house burned down, leaving only memories of Banneker from living friends and artifacts from other people who corresponded with the Black astronomer and mathematician.  As with Banneker’s story in many facets, there were several people shocked by his famous tracking of the Brood X cicadas.

“I already knew he was amazing, but this is next level,” one Twitter user wrote.

“Good, [Stand] up Brother who never gave up the Fight,” another person tweeted.