Time to Create Some Buzz For Banneker
By Courtland Milloy
Wednesday, April 14, 2004; Page B01

 

Benjamin Banneker is almost never mentioned in connection with the 17-year cicada cycle, even though the African American farmer from Ellicott City is believed to have been the first person to document this noisy recurrence.

 

In the book "The Life of Benjamin Banneker," author Silvio A. Bedini quotes from o¬ne of Banneker's journals, which was published about 1800:

 

"The first great Locust year that I can remember was 1749. 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."

 

Banneker recorded another appearance in 1766, when he was 34, and yet another in 1783, according to Bedini. He then accurately predicted that the "locusts" would return in 1800.

 

In light of Banneker's contribution, it seems appropriate that the return of so-called Brood X cicadas this spring coincides with efforts to secure a memorial to him in Washington. One plan would have a statue of Banneker placed on a site that already bears his name, Banneker Overlook Park, near L'Enfant Plaza.

 

Others, however, think that the site could be put to better use. o¬ne group wants to see the overlook renamed in honor of former president Ronald Reagan; another group would have the area become part of a baseball stadium.

 

An Honoring Our Ancestors rally is scheduled for Saturday at the park as part of the effort to hold on to the site for a Banneker memorial and to show the importance of African Americans in the development of the Southwest waterfront -- from slavery to the present.

 

Advocates of a memorial to Banneker have been trying to make the case to federal officials that he was truly extraordinary and worth honoring in a special way.

 

Despite Banneker's obvious accomplishments, the job has not been easy, said Peggy Seats, who heads the Washington Interdependence Council, the nonprofit administrator of the Banneker memorial fund.

 

"After all, our history is not taught in American schools, not even to us," she said.

 

Seats and Bedini make good, if irreconcilable points, about the importance of race in the life of Banneker, who was born free in Maryland in 1731.

 

Seats believes that it is important to highlight his race when discussing his accomplishments: He was the first black author of almanacs, the first known African American astronomer and, as an outspoken abolitionist, the first high-profile black civil rights leader.

 

Bedini, o¬n the other hand, believes more people might rally to Banneker's cause if his accomplishments -- regardless of race -- were allowed to speak for themselves. He also warns that exaggerating Banneker's success might do more harm than good.

 

(One mistaken impression is that Banneker laid out the city of Washington; he did, however, do important work as an assistant to Andrew Ellicott, who surveyed the city.)

 

"I wish people would present him simply for his achievements, which were so outstanding that it wouldn't matter if he were black, white or yellow," Bedini said. "He was self-taught and, even as a boy, showed great curiosity and astounding mathematical abilities."

After examining a watch, for instance, Banneker made o¬ne by hand, using wood, a homemade spring and a pocketknife. The watch kept accurate time for at least 40 years.

 

Working with Ellicott, Banneker recorded the movement of the stars and provided Ellicott with calculations needed to calibrate the field clock that was used to survey the city.

 

Banneker also combined his skills as a farmer and astronomer in the production of almanacs. Thomas Jefferson received one and wrote to Banneker that he was impressed that a black person had been able to do so much despite racial oppression.

 

It should also be noted that Banneker's best work as a scientist was done after he turned 70 (he would live through four cicada cycles) and that his intellectual journey started when his grandmother taught him to read.

 

He was a man worth remembering.

 

E-mail: milloyc@washpost.com
© 2004 The Washington Post Company



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