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Researchers Say Md. Man's Cicada Work Was Ignored Because He Was Black

(SOUNDBITE OF CICADAS BUZZING)

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

The cicadas are coming. In some places, they're already starting to emerge from the ground, billions of cicadas, in fact, that have been underground waiting for this moment for 17 years.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

People have been studying them for even longer. In fact, the 17-year cycle may first have been observed and documented by the naturalist Benjamin Banneker, a Maryland scientist, surveyor and free Black man born in 1731. Over the course of his life, he witnessed four 17-year cycles, or broods, of cicadas.

JANET BARBER: He had not had really a formal education in the sciences, yet he was just very brilliant to understand that something different and phenomenal is going on.

MARTIN: That's researcher Janet Barber. She published a paper with her husband Asamoah Nkwanta about Banneker's observations.

ASAMOAH NKWANTA: It's amazing. I mean, you can see where he etches out mistakes or something he might want to change.

MARTIN: Banneker's original handwritten document describing the cicadas in 1800 is at the Maryland Center for History and Culture in Baltimore.

INSKEEP: The Baltimore Sun recently featured Nkwanta and Barber's work from 2014, describing the document and Banneker's observations, observations that first started when he was 17.

BARBER: He began to look at them and wonder if they might destroy the Earth, if they might be some harm to us, and he realized that they were not. And so that's where his fascination came, and he began to study.

INSKEEP: He accurately predicted the next 17-year cycles. Four generations of cicadas later, Mr. Banneker was 68 and had been documenting the insects for half a century.

MARTIN: Banneker's detailed observations also describe cicada behavior. The bugs are only above ground for a few weeks, which they spend mating and screaming. As Banneker put it, if their lives are short, they are merry, noting that, quote, "they still continue singing till they die."

INSKEEP: If only we could all say the same. Nkwanta and Barber hope that their research brings more attention to Banneker's work, which they say was largely ignored because he was Black.

NKWANTA: There's a lot of stories about the cicada, but very seldom do you hear any mention of Benjamin Banneker connected to the discovery of the 17-year periodic cycle.

INSKEEP: Think of his discovery this way. It was underground for many, many years, but now his story is emerging.

(SOUNDBITE OF CICADAS BUZZING) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.