Black Man on Top of the World

One hundred years ago today, a black man was the first to reach the North Pole, but it took a while for Matthew Henson to get the credit for that feat.

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“I was in the lead that had overshot the mark a couple of miles,” Matthew Henson told a reporter in March 1955, relating the moment when, 46 years earlier, he knew he had conquered the world. “We went back then, and I could see that my footprints were the first at the spot.”

“The spot” was the geographic North Pole, the literal roof of the planet. Achieving that distinction had long been the Holy Grail for explorers, adventurers and scientists. Henson’s claim to being the first human to set foot on the Pole on April 6, 1909, has been a sore point with others inclined to believe, as has been insisted for generations, that superstar Arctic explorer Robert E. Peary was the first to reach the Pole.

Over the last century, a growing body of credible evidence has come to the conclusion that 100 years ago today, Henson, not Peary, reached the Pole first. Still the Peary myth remains. That lingering distortion of fact is the result of the combination of the early bloom of our celebrity culture and the persistence of 20th century racial bias. Peary was a star and Henson was black; those two factors merged to virtually eclipse Henson’s role in conquering the top of the world.

Henson’s relatives and others are marking the occasion of Henson’s and Peary’s not-quite joint achievement. Centennial observances of just about anything are a lock for media attention in today’s culture. But honors for Henson, who died in March 1955 at the age of 88, are a tribute to his own longevity and a quiet celebration of the idea that eventually the truth will take hold.

Henson had an edge over Peary in advancing the historical narrative. First, there was the natural advantage of outliving his friend and rival by 35 years (Peary died in 1920 at 63). But the suppression of the Henson perspective during the early years of the Peary mythos has given way to a positive fascination with Henson’s side of the story, a side that has increasingly convinced people that it is the truth.

By the spring of 1909, Henson and Peary had been friends for more than 20 years, since they first met on an expedition to Nicaragua in 1888. An expert navigator who spoke the Inuit language, Henson joined Peary several times on various Arctic expeditions.

It was on one such assault on the North Pole that Peary, Henson and another 22 men, 133 dogs and 19 sleds set off from Ellesmere Island on March 1, 1909.

Henson and Peary had been pursuing the Pole in separate dog sleds, alternating responsibility for blazing trails through the Arctic’s arduous weather. On April 6, the expedition —now streamlined by lighter loads and reduced to Henson in one sled, followed by Peary and four of the Inuit crew in another — made one last assault on the Pole.

Anna Brendle of National Geographic wrote in 2003: “On April 6, 1909, Henson arrived at Camp Jesup, 89°47', 45 minutes ahead of Peary, concluding by dead reckoning that he had reached the Pole. Henson greeted Peary, “I think I'm the first man to sit on top of the world.”

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