Benjamin Banneker

Benjamin Banneker

(1731-1806)

DJ Name: Beats Maker Banneker 

If you live in certain areas of the U.S., perhaps you’ve recently noticed you have some new neighbors. And these neighbors aren’t exactly friendly ones, getting out the barbecue for Memorial Day Weekend and sharing a beer with you on your stoop. Nay, these neighbors cling to your doorframe, leave their carcasses right where you might step on them and you keep walking in on them doin’ the deed…right in your front yard all in just a few weeks time before they die. What a life. 

That’s right, we’re talking about cicadas, which are visiting neighborhoods for the first time in 17 years, perhaps because they heard they’re eligible for a Pfizer vaccine now. These cicadas, also known as Brood X, have been climbing out of their hidey-holes once every 17 years to pay us a visit for a long time (Luckily, Emmy and Camille don’t have to deal with this cicada nonsense). One of the first people to document their lifestyle and behavioral patterns was Benjamin Banneker, who wrote extensively on their dating and mating preferences for Seventeen Magazine: Cicada Edition. JK. But he did detail their lives during his own life throughout the 1700s in Maryland — one of the prime spots for cicada vacation (it has a Trees With Good Light Exposure Score of 10 on Zillow). Benjamin did lots of other important science and math stuff throughout his life, but because he was Black, Benjamin Banneker has slipped through the cracks of history. But no more! Today, we bring you Benjamin’s life story as well as his favorite sick-ada beats *knee slap*. 

https://open.spotify.com/embed/playlist/0kRlYj45UOFXeWNxLBA7B6

Benjamin Banneker was born on November 9, 1731, in Oella, which is in the western part of Baltimore County, Maryland, on his parents’ 100-acre tobacco farm. His dad, Robert, was formerly enslaved, and his mom, Mary, was the daughter of a mixed-race couple. During that era, it was extremely rare for Black people to be homesteaders, and they experienced some form of independence and economic self-determination which was almost unheard of for nonwhite people. That said, the Banneker fam still experienced a lot of racial discrimination and the fact that they owned land didn’t make them immune to animosity from their neighbors. 

Though literacy rates were low across the board in their mid-Atlantic region, Benjamin shuffled off to the nearby one-room schoolhouse each morning to satiate this thirst for knowledge. At home, his grandma, who had been an indentured servant in Ireland, taught him how to read and write. He also had an affinity for math and science. During his teenage years in the 1740s, the cicadas made their first appearance in his life. They scuttled out of the ground to party it up in Maryland for their last few weeks of life. He was a bit horrified the first time he saw them, screaming and mating all over his parents’ farm. 

“The first great Locust year that I can Remember was 1749,” Benjamin wrote in his journal. “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.”

Just like us, Benjamin quickly realized that these little nuisances could not be easily wiped out. They were the hardcore party rockers. It was like whack-a-cicada: crush one and another appears. Plus, then you’re stuck with a graveyard of their exoskeletons. It’s not pretty. Anyway, Benjamin also realized that these dudes were not a threat. They weren’t going to wipe out the fruit of the Earth, cause a famine or crawl into his ears at night and lay eggs. Oh, that’s just our fear? Benjamin didn’t say that? Hm. So he decided he wouldn’t murder them, and instead he let his fascination grow. He wrote down the deets, and over the course of his life he would take note of these weird little critters and eventually learned that they appeared every 17 years — accurately predicting their re-emergence in 1800.

“If their lives are short, they are merry,” he said, adding that “they still continue on Singing till they die.” 

Benjamin’s brains took him all over the place. He was interested in learning about the cicadas, but, in his early 20s, he also took an interest in woodcarving. He used his skills to craft a wooden clock that kept perfect time (to time the re-emergence of cicadas, obviously). He’d studied a pocket watch’s gears to make sure he got the mechanics right. Clocks such as this one were in short supply in 1750s Maryland, and his timepiece was the talk of the town. People would come from far and wide to watch his clock tick and tock. As an intellectual in the mid-eighteenth century mid-Atlantic, Benjamin had many admirers but few peers. That changed in 1771, when he got some new neighbors. No, these ones were not screaming cicadas, but were instead humans. The Ellicotts were a quirky Quaker family from Pennsylvania, and they moved to Maryland to start their gristmill not too far away from the Bannekers’ tobacco farm. Benjamin struck up a friendship with George Ellicott, who worked as a land surveyor but moonlighted as a passionate astronomer. Benjamin took a liking to this hobby, too, and George lent him books and lunar tables so that he could learn some star stuff, too. 

Back on Earth, Congress was passing the Residence Act, which established a new federal city to be built along the Potomac River. The guy in the Oval Office was named George Washington, and he needed three commissioners to oversee the construction of what would soon become Washington, D.C. One of the men brought on to work as an engineer was Andrew Ellicott, George’s cousin. Andrew, knowing his cuzzo thought highly of his neighbor Benjamin, asked him to help him out. For the first time in his whole life, Benjamin, who was now nearing 60 years old, journeyed more than 10 miles away from his tobacco farm to help Andrew map out the new nation’s capital. Benjamin was paid $2 a day to help Andrew determine latitude and record astronomical observations. 

The city scopers set out to plot the boundary lines for the Federal City in February 1971. Benjamin monitored the regulatory clock using thermometers and a transit and altitude instrument. His recordings established base points for the boundary. And, Andrew Ellicot would refer to the regular clock to set his own timepiece which determined latitude. At night, Benjamin would stargaze and write down how the positions of stars matched certain points on the ground at particular times. While the team was taking measurements and surveying the lands along the Potomac, people kept up with the project in their local news. The Georgetown Weekly Ledger gave Benny a shoutout for his smart star and measuring skills saying, “[Ellicott] is attended by Benjamin Banniker, an Ethiopian, whose abilities, as a surveyor, and an astronomer, clearly prove that Mr. Jefferson’s concluding that race of men were void of mental endowments, was without foundation.” At the time, Mr. Jefferson was Secretary of State. 

The field work finished in the Spring of 1791 when commissioners of the city, Ellicott and many a spectator gathered at Jones Point, Virginia, to install the first of the four stone markers that marked the boundaries of the new nation’s capital city. So long, Philly! It’s unknown if Benjamin attended this ceremony as nothing to note his attendance exists. Flash forward a year and construction in the city began with enslaved people to cut the cost of labor.  They cleared and paved roads and transported stone and compiled stone for the building of the White House and Capitol. 

Shortly after the establishment of the boundaries of D.C., Benjamin returned home to his farm to begin his work on a series of almanacs for farmers, which were typically used to predict long-range weather patterns and as a source to share opinions on best seasons for crops and other farmer things like eclipse schedules and horoscopes for every astrology szn. His almanac also contained words of wisdom and medicinal practices. Benjamin reconnected with fellow science star Andrew Ellicott (remember, they like mapped out D.C. together) who sent Benjamin’s almanac to a Philly phellow named James Pemberton, who was president of the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, to see if he could take a look at Benjamin’s work as an extra set of eyes kinda like a peer review. Pemberton also shared the almanac with phellow Philly scientists William Waring and David Rittenhouse and both confirmed the accuracy of Benjamin’s book. Rittenhouse wrote that he was impressed with Benjamin’s work, calling it, “an extraordinary performance, considering the colour of the Author.” To which Benjamin replied, “I am annoyed to find that the subject of my race is so much stressed. The work is either correct or it is not. In this case, I believe it to be perfect.” 

After his peer review period, Benjamin brought his almanac to William Goddard, a Baltimore printer, who published The Pennsylvania, Delaware, Maryland and Virginia Almanack and Ephemeris, which became a best seller every year from 1792 to 1797. In late 1791, he mailed an advance copy to Thomas Jefferson with a letter that pointed out Jefferson’s hypocrisy as the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence but who also owned over 600 enslaved people. Jefferson replied with a short note and forwarded Benjamin’s almanac to the Academy of Sciences in Paris. Benjamin later published his correspondence with Jefferson and several magazines and almanacs reprinted the exchange. 
A few years later, Benjamin Banneker passed away on October 9, 1806 at his farm. Several days after his funeral, his house caught fire, and with it went all his writings and possessions. Much of what is known today about Banneker comes from his published almanacs and records shared by others whom he engaged with throughout his life. Benjamin’s accomplishments establish his legacy as a respected, self-made free Black man whose stargazing, cicada-whispering and mathematical skills contributed greatly to the science world.

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