Monday, February 04, 2008

Black History Month: Pioneers, Part I

Matthew Henson and Bessie Coleman weren't pioneers in the Laura Ingalls Wilder sense, but they did charter unknown territory for African Americans.

Although Matthew Henson was known in his time, it is only recently that his true contributions have come to light. The race to be the first at the North Pole was intense at the turn of the last century (he was ahead of Peary by 45 minutes, which angered Peary); at the age of 21, Maryland-born Matthew Henson joined Robert Peary in the quest to the Arctic. Not only was Henson the first to reach the Pole, but he also found a welcoming home among the Inuit (the proper name of the Eskimo) people (in fact, both Henson and Peary had children with Inuit women). After a controversy with another explorer, who falsely claimed to have reached the North Pole before Peary and Henson, Peary was celebrated as a larger than life hero. Henson, who was incorrectly identified (not by Peary) as only a manservant, returned to obscurity and worked as a clerk at a New York federal customs house. In 1941, Congress awarded Henson the same medal it has awarded Peary, and the National Geographic Society posthumously awarded Henson its most prestigious medal, the Hubbard, in 2000.

Onward is an exciting and moving account of Henson's life, pre- and post-North Pole. You expect a book published by National Geographic to be a winning combination of photos and text; Onward does not fail to meet this expectation. Henson's and Peary's children with Inuit women are discussed briefly and not in a sensational matter. We even meet his descendants, who are quite proud of their lineage. The book also discusses the racism that prevented Henson from receiving his due recognition at his triumph.

There are several organizations, memorials, and schools named in honor of Henson:

Arlington National Cemetery memorial (Henson was reinterred there in 1988).

Pictures of Henson's memorial

Matthew Henson Foundation

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