Astronomer and Renaissance man Benjamin Banneker was born in Baltimore County, Maryland in 1731 to Mary Banneky, a free Black woman, and Robert, a formerly enslaved man who was born in Guinea. According to some biographers, his mother was of Dogon descent, a tribe of people from what is now modern day Mali. The Dogon were legendary artists, architects, and astronomers, with a complex astronomical system that succeeded in identifying stars that were not discovered by Western astronomers until the 20th century. Many believe that Banneker’s love of astronomy was informed by these ancient African practices.
His family had a 100 acre farm, and while he would be expected to help with farm work when he grew older, in his early years he learned reading, writing, and arithmetic, and he proved to be an adept student. The Quaker educator Peter Heinrich recognized his promise and instructed him personally, sharing his library with the curious young Banneker as well as giving him his first telescope. This is the extent of his formal education however; largely he was self-taught. After his father’s death in 1759, Banneker supported his mother and sisters on the family farm, developing a knowledge of agronomy that he would later apply to his published almanacs. In 1772, he befriended the Ellicotts, a neighboring Quaker family whose gristmills contributed to Banneker’s knowledge of agricultural engineering. Later, one of the Ellicotts sons lent him the astronomy books and equipment he needed to embark on a more formal study of astronomy. In 1788, he accurately calculated his first solar eclipse