During Black History Month, DiversityInc is honoring a series of Black innovators and history makers— including Matthew Henson—who are often overlooked in mainstream media coverage and history books. Check back throughout February to learn about more important figures.
Born: August 8, 1866, Nanjemoy, MD
Died: March 9, 1955, the Bronx
Known best for: participating in the 1908-1909 expedition that claimed to reach the geographic North Pole, first Black member of The Explorers Club
Matthew Henson was a prolific African American explorer in the early 1900s who went on seven different dangerous expeditions to the Arctic over two decades. Henson is most well known for being a part of the 1908-1909 expedition with famous explorer Robert Peary. That expedition claimed to have reached the geographic North Pole and Henson said he was the first one of their group to actually reach the pole.
Henson’s strength and determination as an adult was formed as a child. He had a difficult life. Both of his parents died when he was a child. So he walked, barefoot, from Washington, D.C. to Baltimore when he was just 11 years old and got a job working on a ship as a cabin boy.
Six years later after the death of the ship’s captain, Henson went to work as a store clerk, and that’s where he met Robert Peary, his future exploring partner. Henson started out as Peary’s assistant on a trip to Central America and from there they explored Greenland together on many dangerous trips.
Once that was conquered, Peary and Henson decided to try and reach the North Pole. They had multiple unsuccessful attempts and finally tried one last time in 1908. Henson learned the Native Eskimos language in order to make the trip successful, the only person on the trip to do so.
But because Henson was Black, he did not receive credit for actually being the first one to get closest to the Pole. It took several decades and help from friends to get a civil service appointment from President Taft, a Congressional Medal in 1944 and a Presidential Citation in 1950.
There is some doubt as to whether the expedition actually reached the North Pole. But in 1912 he published a memoir titled A Negro Explorer at the North Pole and from there, he was the first African American to be made a life member of The Explorers Club and after his death he was awarded the Hubbard Medal by the National Geographic Society.