“As I stood there on the top of the world and I thought of the hundreds
of men who had lost their lives in their effort to reach it North Pole, I felt
profoundly grateful that I had the honor of representing my race.” With these words,
Matthew Henson planted the American flag on the North Pole.
During the past, black Americans have not received the
acknowledgement they deserved. Such was the case of Matthew A. Henson. He was
the first person to discover the North Pole, although Robert Peary is usually credited
with this feat. Henson passed away in relative obscurity, in 1955, and was not given
recognition until 1988, when he was reburied in Arlington National Cemetery with
Matthew Henson was born on August 3, 1866 in Baltimore, Maryland.
He was raised in Carrol County. At an early age, Henson’s mother died, leaving him
alone to live with his father. Unfortunately the family experienced problems with the
Klu Klux Klan. To escape the problems and make a better life for his son, Henson’s
father moved the family to Washington, D.C.. While Henson’s father worked, he
took care of the elderly uncle they lived with. While still living in Washington
Henson’s father died, leaving him in care of his uncle. The uncle was mean and
abusive to the point that it caused him to runaway from the only home he had. For
awhile, Henson wandered the streets. He was a poor, ragged, and uneducated kid.
What could he offer to someone to earn a living? Finally, he came to a small
restaurant. The owner hired Henson to sweep and mop the floors, clean the kitchen
and wash the dishes. Henson had no place to stay so they owner let him sleep on the
floor of the restaurant after closing.
One day, Henson saw a sign advertising a ship captain looking for
young men to work on his ship. Since he had nothing better to do, Henson decided
to sign up. That was the beginning of Henson’s sailing career. For the rest of
Henson’s teenage years, Henson sailed around the world. He learned much aboard
the ship such as: mathematics, navigation, the operations of a ship, and how to read
books and maps. By the age of 21, Henson was a skilled and experienced sailor.
Between his terms at sea, Henson would sometimes work to earn a
little money. One job he had would change the course of his life. While a store clerk
in Washington, D.C., he met Robert Peary and was hired as his valet for a trip to
survey canal sites in Nicaragua in 1887-88. Beginning in the year 1891, he
accompanied Peary on many expeditions to the Arctic. The kinship that Henson had
established with the Eskimos and his resourcefulness with handling equipment made
him indispensable to Peary in polar explorations. On April 6, 1909, six men made a
frenzied dash for the North Pole. They were (in order from first to last) Matthew
Henson, followed by four Eskimos pulling Robert Peary on a sled (his feet were
frostbitten). Henson outran them all, becoming the first man to reach the North Pole.
Peary handed him the American flag, which he planted at the site in the snow. He
then posed for a picture with the four Eskimo guides who led Henson and Peary to
Matthew Henson’s contribution to humanity was this polar excursion.
This paved the way for other extensive journeys to the Pole and similar places. If
Henson and Peary had not made this journey others might not have been motivated
to explore new and different places, which is why this is still relevant today. This
also gave meaning to racial equality. Henson proved that even though he was black
he could do anything he put his mind to.
There were many other momentous happenings also going on at this
time. National Conference on the Negro convened May 30, leading to founding of
the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. The NAACP is
organized at New York following a January meeting in the apartment of W. E.
Walling with social worker Mary W. Ovington and immigrant leader Henry
Moscowitz who begin “a revival of the Abolitionist spirit.” Constantinople
recognizes Austrian annexation of Bosnia and Herzogovina January 12, Vienna pays
the Turks a 2.2 million indemnity, the Russians cancel a 20-million Turkish
indemnity in return for Constantinople’s recognition of Bulgarian independence, and
internal strife disrupts the Ottoman Empire. Nearly two decades of Hawaiian
plantation disturbances begin with a strike by exploited Japanese workers. It is the
In conclusion, the explorers returned home to a divided public. Their
claim to be the first to reach the North Pole was disputed by some and believed by
others. Another explorer even claimed to have reached the Pole first. Their claim
was finally proven to be true but, not without consequence. Matthew Henson was
shoved out of the limelight. Peary, his fellow explorer and “friend,” claimed that he
was the first in the world to reach the North Pole even though it was not true.
Henson, the foremost man to reach the North Pole was reduced to carrying luggage
and parking cars for a living. Years after that famous sojourn, Henson was accepted
as a member of the Explorer’s Club. The club gave Henson his overdue, but well
deserved recognition. The club worked to get Henson accredited as the true
discoverer of the North Pole. Their efforts were partially paid off in 1954. In 1954,
the year before Henson died, President Dwight D. Eisenhower presented him with
an award acknowledging his great accomplishment. It was not until 1982 that
Henson was reburied in Arlington National Cemetery, where he should have been