APRIL 6, 1909
Matthew Henson reached the North Pole, planting the American flag. Traveling with the Admiral Peary Expedition, Henson reportedly reached the North Pole almost 45 minutes before Peary and the rest of the men.
“As I stood there on top of the world and I thought of the hundreds of men who had lost their lives in the effort to reach it, I felt profoundly grateful that I had the honor of representing my race,” he said.
While some would later dispute whether the expedition had actually reached the North Pole, Henson’s journey seems no less amazing. Born in Maryland to sharecropping parents who survived attacks by the KKK, he grew up working, becoming a cabin boy and sailing around the world.
After returning, he became a salesman at a clothing store in Washington, D.C., where he waited on a customer named Robert Peary. He was so impressed with Henson and his tales of the sea that he hired him as his personal valet. Henson joined Peary on a trip to Nicaragua. Impressed with Henson’s seamanship, Peary made Henson his “first man” on the expeditions that followed to the Arctic.
When the expedition returned, Peary drew praise from the world while Henson’s contributions were ignored. Over time, his work came to be recognized. In 1937, he became the first African-American life member of The Explorers Club. Seven years later, he received the Peary Polar Expedition Medal and was received at the White House by President Truman and later President Eisenhower.
“There can be no vision to the (person) the horizon of whose vision is limited by the bounds of self,” he said. “But the great things of the world, the great accomplishments of the world, have been achieved by (people with) … high ideals and … great visions. The path is not easy, the climb is rugged and hard, but the glory at the end is worthwhile.”
Henson died in 1955, and his body was re-interred with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery. The U.S. Postal Service featured him on a stamp, and the U.S. Navy named a Pathfinder class ship after him. In 2000, the National Geographic Society awarded him the Hubbard Medal.