Appreciating The Brilliance Of Benjamin Banneker

17:03 minutes

A stamp that reads "Benjamin Banneker, Black Heritage USA 15 cents." In the middle is an illustrated bust portrait of Benjamin Banneker and in the foreground a full body portrait of banneker with a surveying tool.
A US stamp from 1980 dedicated to Black heritage, featuring Benjamin Banneker. Credit: Shutterstock

Benjamin Banneker was a free Black man born in 1731, over a century before slavery was abolished in his home state of Maryland. Today, Banneker is perhaps best known for his role in drawing the original borders of Washington, DC.

But he was also an accomplished naturalist and polymath. He was among the first to document the cicada’s 17-year life cycle. Banneker also taught himself astronomy and math, and published one of the country’s first almanacs.

Guest host Regina Barber talks with Dr. Janet Barber, an independent researcher, writer, and social scientist (with no relation to Regina), and Dr. Asamoah Nkwanta department chair and professor of mathematics at Morgan State University, based in Baltimore, Maryland, about Benjamin Banneker’s life and scientific legacy.

Further Reading

Want to learn more about Benjamin Banneker’s work? 

Segment Guests

Janet Barber

Dr. Janet Barber is an independent researcher, writer, and social scientist.

Asamoah Nkwanta

Dr. Asamoah Nkwanta is department chair and professor of Mathematics at Morgan State University in Baltimore, Maryland.

Segment Transcript

JOHN DANKOSKY: This is Science Friday. I’m John Dankosky.

REGINA BARBER: And I’m Regina Barber. In honor of Black History Month, we wanted to bring you the story of a pioneering Black scientist, whose work you might not be familiar with. Benjamin Banneker, he was a free Black man born in 1731, over a century before slavery was abolished in his home state of Maryland. Banneker is perhaps best known for his role in drawing the original borders of Washington, DC. But he was also an accomplished naturalist, and polymap, and among the first to document the cicada’s 17-year life cycle. He taught himself astronomy and math and published one of the country’s first almanacs.

Joining me today to talk more about Benjamin Banneker’s life and scientific legacy are my guests, Dr. Janet Barber, independent researcher, writer, and social scientist– and despite sharing the last name, we are not related– and Dr. Asamoah Nkwanta, Department Chair and professor of mathematics at Morgan State University, based in Baltimore, Maryland. Dr. Barber and Dr. Nkwanta, welcome to Science Friday.

ASAMOAH NKWANTA: Thank you, and welcome to you as well.

JANET BARBER: Thank you ever so much. We’re excited.

REGINA BARBER: All right, let’s start with Benjamin Banneker’s early life and education. So, Dr. Barber, as I mentioned at the top, he had no formal scientific training. Can you tell me a bit about his role his mother played in encouraging him to observe and document the natural world?

JANET BARBER: He had an astute mother who was a naturalist. And so I’m so glad you brought that up. She most certainly was a naturalist, grew herbs, edible flowers. And she would sell at the market in Ellicott City. And his mother was very instrumental, and so was his grandmother, very Instrumental in his education.

And he learned to read from his grandmother. He was very observant of his surroundings. His father left him property when he was only six years old. His name was on the deed. And so he did have land. He did have a business. And he always held on to the lessons of his mom, and the lessons of his grandmother, and also certainly, the lessons of his father. Because he learned about the Dogon from his father, which is an African tradition and knowledge from particular families.

And I’m thinking that’s how he might have been interested in surveying, and astronomy, mathematics, and everything. Because every day, at his house, was like a lesson. It was like a general school lesson. But he also was able, at some point in his life, to go to school. And that helped, I’m sure, somewhat as well.

However, as I say in many of my lectures, we can imagine, though, how he might have felt being born free, but only somewhat free. Because I’m sure on an everyday basis, he was forever walking around in his neighborhood in the community where he lived and looking at enslaved people. And so to do what he has done in his lifetime and in his life is truly, truly fascinating and amazing.

REGINA BARBER: So, Dr. Nkwanta, you have been working on getting Banneker’s work, his research work, on cicadas out there. You recently published a paper about his pioneering work on cicadas. What were his contributions to our understanding of cicadas?

ASAMOAH NKWANTA: Banneker, at a very young age, first observed these insects. And not knowing the nature or characteristic of this particular insect, he actually became curious and interested in the aspects of this particular insect. And so they emerged in the first year. And then he noticed that 17 years later, they emerged again. And then there was another 17 years. And then he had observed the emergence of these cicadas for four 17-year cycles.

So if you go back and study the actual history of the emergence of the cicadas, Banneker’s observations are nowhere to be seen. What is so fascinating and interesting is that the cicadas emerge every 17 years, which is a prime number. And for those who don’t know what a prime number, it’s a number that’s divisible by that particular number and 1. So the math conundrum is how do these particular fascinating insects know to emerge every 17 years?

And so the mathematical models that are related to trying to better understand why these particular insects emerge is still an ongoing research problem today. And various models have been developed over the years to try to get a better understanding.

REGINA BARBER: So, Dr. Nkwanta, despite him likely being the first to document cicadas’ 17-year life cycle, he’s largely uncredited, like you say, in the academic literature, until recently. And you probably helped with that. Why were his contributions overlooked for so long? I have a guess, but you go ahead.

ASAMOAH NKWANTA: He was self-taught astronomer, self-taught mathematician. So as we, in STEM and in the sciences, know when you’re not part of the actual Academy, sometimes you’re not recognized. And of course, race may have played a part in that. So there’s a good chance that people just weren’t aware of his observations that turned up in his almanac.

REGINA BARBER: Dr. Barber, now, just a few months after Banneker was born, in 1731, the 17-year cicadas emerged. And you wrote a poem imagining this moment in time. Could you read it for us, this poem?

JANET BARBER: OK, so the title is Baby Benjamin Banneker and the Magicicada. “Years from adulthood, down deep in old Maryland woods, a feather bed at his crib, little baby Benjamin, her magic for real, his brain already bright for a 17-year flight. The Dogon star smiled down, duly anointing his head and vision alike. Baby Ben saw the magic, wings twirling around, in the May night, the 1730 year cicada singing loudly with delight.”

And that was penned while I was writing a children’s book about Benjamin Banneker.

REGINA BARBER: It is beautiful. Thank you for that.

JANET BARBER: Thank you. Thank you.

REGINA BARBER: I loved it. Now, I must mention here that you two are husband and wife. Dr. Barber, you are a social scientist. And Dr. Nkwanta, you are a mathematician. What made you decide to work together on this project documenting Benjamin Banneker’s cicada research?

[GIGGLING] That’s funny.


JANET BARBER: That’s quite funny, isn’t it? Well, as I said earlier, Dr. Nkwanta is interested in nature, and I am too. However, I had not planned to write about or play with the bugs at all. And he was just fascinated by the fact that he thought that he had heard something about the fact that Benjamin Banneker had something to do with it. And we were living very close to Ellicott City.

And we had collaborated in some writing and thinking about writing things together. And so he enlisted me as a partner in doing this. And I veered off into becoming very interested in Benjamin Banneker’s life, which I had already been, but this even made it more so, the fact that I was visiting his home and when we did visit his home in 2004.

And it was just really amazing just to listen to the songs of the cicada. While Dr. Nkwanta was very interested in learning about the mathematics of the 17 years, I was looking at and listening to the love songs of the cicadas. Since I had learned that they are pretty romantic insects. And that is how it really came about, with his saying let’s do this. I’m interested in the cicada. And I became interested as well, especially when I heard the words like magi and magicicadas, and what’s so historical about them, what’s so important about them.

REGINA BARBER: All right, I do want to talk about one of Benjamin Banneker’s other important contributions, his Almanac. His was among one of the first published in the United States. And he also made some important astronomical predictions, which I’m interested in. Can you tell me more about that?

JANET BARBER: In 1789, he made a prediction about the solar eclipse. And it came into fruition April the 14th, 1789, that it actually did occur. And so he made this prediction. And it just so happens that the moon began to path between the Earth and the Sun. And he had already made that prediction. And it actually did happen. It was very unusual that a lot of people were not able to do that. So that was mentioned in some papers and everything in the community.

REGINA BARBER: And his Almanac was really popular among Black and white farmers.

JANET BARBER: It was. Many, many farmers and naturalists used that Almanac religiously. And his scientific contributions and his contemporaries were incorrectly predicting solar eclipses and things, whereas he usually did not. And so I like to say this, with his scientific brilliance at analyzing things very mathematically, I’m thinking that that Dogon ancestry that his grandfather and father taught him with interplay at that time.

REGINA BARBER: Well, let’s talk about another really good story about Benjamin Banneker. Another thing he’s known for is building the first wooden clock in the US. While that matter of him being the first is a little contested, the story is pretty remarkable. Can you tell me about it?

JANET BARBER: Well, Benjamin Banneker, some do say that he made the first clock. It is understood that he actually made the first wooden clock. And the reason we have to say that is because he did indeed get a wristwatch type clock. And he was able to just look at, and calculate, and do the thinking, analysis, and mathematics from that, and actually made a wooden clock that lasted 40 to 50 years and had people from, really and truly, around not just the United States, from around the world, actually, and certainly his neighborhood and people in his community, looking and visiting Benjamin Banneker’s homestead, looking at that clock out of fascination for that many years.

REGINA BARBER: Yeah. And before he built that wooden clock, he had never seen a clock before, ever. Which shows how remarkable he is.

JANET BARBER: He had not ever seen a clock before. He was fascinated with that visitors watch. And they allowed him to hold onto it.

REGINA BARBER: Benjamin Banneker was a free Black man, when most other African-Americans were still enslaved. And that understandably affected him deeply. And it motivated him to write to Thomas Jefferson. What did his letter say?

JANET BARBER: What he did was challenge Thomas Jefferson. And I’ll say it in all sincerity, in claiming equality and human rights for all, while you are duly holding African-Americans in bondage and captivity, it’s insensitivity and servitude. And he said that it reflected, and detained, and looked fraudulent for him to do and say the things he says, when so much violence was going on against enslaved people.

He said to Thomas Jefferson in the letter, “We are a race of beings who have long labored under the abuse and censure of the world. We have long been looked upon with an eye of contempt. However diversified in situation or color, we are all the same. We are all the same family. We are all human.” And that’s essentially what he said in the letter.

And he also asked that slavery be abolished. Of course, we know that it was not. And so even when Thomas Jefferson became President, it still was not. And it was way years later, 1806, October the 9th, when Benjamin Banneker passed away. And still, I’m sure he sadly passed away knowing that his friends, family, all in his community and across the world were still enslaved.

REGINA BARBER: And you said that he also attached his Almanac to this letter. And Jefferson actually wrote back. And what did Banneker do with Thomas Jefferson’s response?

JANET BARBER: What Thomas Jefferson said about, I finally met a Black man who has some intelligence. He is the son of an African prince and a white grandmother, he said. And he was impressed. And then he turned around years later and said something pretty derogatory to a friend that he wrote to in France. He said something to the effect that African-Americans or Africans were still not human.

REGINA BARBER: I read that Banneker actually published Jefferson’s response. Is that true?

JANET BARBER: In the Almanac.

ASAMOAH NKWANTA: Can I just add about the Almanac? Besides the science contributions, there’s also the human rights contribution, in terms of his letter to Jefferson. And also, there was a plan about– a peaceful plan in the document that we still haven’t an address today, in terms of, during war, we have plans for war. But we also need, the United States needs, a plan for peace. And that particular Almanac, as this contribution in terms of science, is also a contribution in terms of human rights.

REGINA BARBER: This is Science Friday from WNYC Studios. So during Banneker’s funeral, his cabin went up in flames. And we don’t know exactly how or why it happened. But in those flames, it’s most likely that even more of Benjamin Banneker’s contributions were lost to history, right?

JANET BARBER: Absolutely, absolutely. Many of its important documents and pages that he had written, research that he had done, went up in flames. They were able to save some of them. And they were saved by friends. But his sisters also saved some of them from his homestead. And we did see, Dr. Nkwanta and I did see, at the Historical Museum in Maryland, many of his documents. We did see many of his documents. However, we know that there are so many more that he had.

REGINA BARBER: So Dr. Nkwanta, I’m going to give you the last question then. You’ve made it your mission to share the scientific legacy of Benjamin Banneker. Why is it so important to make sure his work is remembered?

ASAMOAH NKWANTA: Here is a self-taught individual who had very little resources. And what resources he did have, he made the best of them. And so there’s no excuse for a young person or researcher today, who knows the life and legacy of Benjamin Banneker, to use an excuse of lack of resources in terms of turning out good science and good research.

What he contributed is an example that we all can learn from and we all can follow. Recently, I was in a class with some freshmen students and many of them from the Baltimore, DC area. And I asked them if they had ever heard of Benjamin Banneker. And to my surprise, no one in the room knew of Benjamin Banneker. So we still have a lot of work to do.

REGINA BARBER: And that’s all the time we have. I’d like to thank my guests, Dr. Janet Barber, independent researcher, writer, and social scientist, and Dr. Asamoah Nkwanta, department chair and professor of mathematics at Morgan State University, based in Baltimore, Maryland.

ASAMOAH NKWANTA: Thank you for having us.

JANET BARBER: Yes, thank you very much.

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