Matthew Henson: First African-American Arctic explorer

Black History Month


His early life sloshed at times, undefined like the open, wild sea.

He ran away at 13 and walked to Baltimore, on the other side of Washington, D.C., from his birthplace in Charles County, Md.

He was a stock clerk at a hat shop, and a valet.

But the ocean was his destiny.

He became an adept seaman, an invaluable member of the crew under Cmdr. Robert E. Peary on Peary’s most important voyage.

There was a wrinkle, of course, a complication: Matthew Alexander Henson was black.

The year of their historic trek to the North Pole was late in the early 1900s, a time not far removed from slavery.

But as Henson would later write, “Wherever the world’s work was done by a white man, he had been accompanied by a colored man.”

On April 6, 1909, Peary said they reached the North Pole.

“I think I’m the first man to sit on top of the world,” Henson, who’d ran ahead of the commander, told Peary.

In the following years, Peary earned much praise, though it also came with questions about whether he reached the North Pole or, as many believe today, he missed the mark by a few miles but didn’t reveal that to Henson.

Upon returning home, Peary got awards and honors while Henson struggled to find work. Henson parked cars in New York.

The African-American wasn’t given credit along with his white commander until decades after Henson’s death in 1955.

In 1988, his body was re-interred with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.

“We are assembled here today to right a tragic wrong,” S. Allen Counter, a Harvard professor and black history expert, said at the ceremony.

Henson is regarded today as the first African-American Arctic explorer.

Celebrate Black History Month

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to myAJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.



Reader Comments ...


Next Up in Local

Aerotropolis Atlanta CIDs seek community input on improvement plan
Aerotropolis Atlanta CIDs seek community input on improvement plan

In early 2017, the Aerotropolis Atlanta Community Improvement Districts was awarded a grant from the Atlanta Regional Commission to complete the AeroATL Greenway Plan. When complete, it will be a comprehensive trail master plan for the Aerotropolis area, connecting the communities around Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport. Each of the...
BREAKING: Arrests made in robberies targeting Asian businesses
BREAKING: Arrests made in robberies targeting Asian businesses

Two of the three people wanted in connection with a string of violent robberies targeting Asian businesses have been arrested, according to the FBI. The names and charges of those arrested have not been released. FBI spokesman Stephen Emmett said details would be released later Wednesday. According to officials, the trio robbed 10 restaurants, spas...
Atlanta wins COPS grant to expand BeltLine patrol unit
Atlanta wins COPS grant to expand BeltLine patrol unit

The U.S. Department of Justice has awarded a 2017 Community Oriented Policing Services Hiring Program grant to the city of Atlanta. It was among the recipients for a $1.875 million award, which will fund 15 additional Path Force officers over three years. The Path Force is a dedicated unit of the Atlanta Police Department that patrols the Atlanta BeltLine&rsquo...
Road to Bethlehem closed for 60 days
Road to Bethlehem closed for 60 days

The Georgia Department of Transportation will be shifting traffic on the roundabout project in Walton County at State Route 81 and Bold Springs Road in Bethlehem. This section of Bold Springs Road is 8.2 miles northeast of Loganville. The construction will detour traffic for Bold Springs Road headed westbound by way of Bold Springs Church Road beginning...
Runoff election early voting begins Nov. 27 in Peachtree Corners
Runoff election early voting begins Nov. 27 in Peachtree Corners

Early voting in the runoff election for Peachtree Corners City Council Post 4 between the incumbent Jeanne Aulbach and candidate Joe Sawyer begins Nov. 27 and runs through Dec. 1. Voters may cast their ballots between 9 a.m. and 4 p.m. at Peachtree Corners City Hall, 147 Technology Parkway, Suite 200. City Hall is the only location for this runoff...
More Stories