"It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have." ~ James Baldwin
"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Monday, August 8, 2011

Matthew Henson

“As I stood there on the top of the world and I thought of the hundreds of men who had lost their lives in the effort to reach it [North Pole], I felt profoundly grateful that I had the honor of representing my race.” ~ Matthew Henson

Matthew Alexander Henson was born August 8, 1866 in Nanjemoy, Maryland near Baltimore, and grew up in Washington, DC. Orphaned at an early age, he went to sea as a cabin boy on a merchant ship when he was 11 or 12. For the next several years he sailed around the world, educating himself in mathematics and navigation, and became a skilled navigator.

While working as a stock boy at a fur and supplies store in Washington DC in 1887 Henson met explorer Robert E. Peary, who hired him as a valet to accompany him on his travels. Their first journey was to Nicaragua where Peary had a government contract to survey the land for a possible canal to be built there. Peary was impressed with Henson's map-making ability and made him his assistant.

For years they explored together, primarily in the Arctic in attempts to reach the North Pole. Henson traded with the Inuit, learning their language and local skills such as sled-building. Their name for him was "Maye-Paluq", which translates as "Kind One." Harvard ethnographer and explorer S. Allen Counter found that both Henson and Peary fathered children in Greenland during their 1906 visit.

Along with native sled-bearers Ootah, Egingwah, Seegloo and Ooqueah, Henson and Peary were successful in reaching the Pole on April 6, 1909. At the time, Peary was riding in the sled because of frostbite and Henson had gone ahead as a scout, arriving at the spot calculated to be correct about 45 minutes before the rest of the party. When they arrived Peary handed Henson an American flag which he planted at the site. Later Peary's calculations showed the Pole to be about three miles away. He set off to that site with Egingwah and Seegloo, placing a flag there as well. Further controversy about the location of the pole has followed throughout the years, including Frederick Cook's claim that he arrived there a year before Henson and Peary. Nevertheless, Peary was recognized by Congress as having "attained" the Pole.

Peary returned to acclaim and was awarded the rank of Rear Admiral in the U. S. Navy. He did not recognize Henson's contribution, and Henson found work parking cars in a garage in New York City. After pressure from African American leaders, President Taft gave him a Civil Service position as a messenger in a U. S. Customs House.

Henson died on March 9, 1955 at the age of 88 and was buried in the Bronx. Dr. Coulter petitioned to have him and his wife, Lucy, who had died in 1968, reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery. On April 6, 1988 (the 79th anniversary of the discovery of the North Pole) a ceremony was held with full military honors and Henson's American and Inuit descendants in attendance.

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