Barbara Hillary, the First Black Woman to Reach the North and South Poles, Dies at 88

Photo: AP Images

If Barbara Hillary was going to go to the South Pole, she was going to make it worth her while.

Hillary, a 79-year-old retired nurse, was the first black woman to ever venture to the bottom of the world in 2011 (just four years before, she became the first documented black woman to reach the North Pole). She made sure she had plenty of milk chocolate.

Advertisement

“If I had frozen to death down there, wouldn’t it be sad if I’d gone to hell without getting what I want?” Hillary told the New York Times after she completed her trip.

Hillary died on Saturday at the age of the 88 in a Queens hospital, reports the Times. Her death was announced on her website and her Twitter account, which mentioned she had gone through “significant health decline in recent months.”

To say she lived a full life would be a criminal understatement.

As the Times’ astounding and gorgeous obituary of Hillary chronicles, she was a master of reinvention—a lifelong resident of New York City who, upon retiring from a 55-year career as a nurse, sought the sort of adventures she’d read about in her favorite childhood books:

[S]he went dog-sledding in Quebec and photographed polar bears in Manitoba. She then learned that no African-American woman had ever made it to the North Pole and challenged herself to become the first, though she had no funding and no organization behind her and had lost 25 percent of her breathing capacity from surgery for her lung cancer.

The expedition would require her to ski, which she had also never done before. “It wasn’t a popular sport in Harlem,” where she had grown up, she told The Seattle Times in 2007.

In preparation for the trek, she took cross-country skiing lessons and hired a personal trainer. She started eating more vegetables, increased her vitamin intake and worked out with weights. And she raised the necessary $25,000, mostly through donations, for equipment and transportation.

Advertisement

Among the people she petitioned to help her raise money was then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who gave less-than-helpful direction.

“Mayor Bloomberg referred me to the Department for the Aging, which sent a form letter of things I could do in the senior center,” Hillary told the New Yorker in 2007. “Mister, don’t you get it? If I’m going to the North Pole, why the hell do I need a senior center?”

Advertisement

But even before her spectacular turn as a modern-day explorer, Hillary had rich and varied interests.

From the Times:

In Far Rockaway she founded the Arverne Action Association, which sought to improve life in that neighborhood. She also founded The Peninsula Magazine, which covered the Rockaways, and was its editor in chief.

In addition to working as a nurse, Ms. Hillary sometimes drove a taxi, Deborah Bogosian, a friend, told 1010 WINS radio in New York. She also had an appreciation for “archery, guns and knives, big trucks and big dogs,” Ms. Bogosian said, and grew roses and tomatoes.

Advertisement

Along the way, she survived two battles with cancer—once against breast cancer in her twenties, and against lung cancer in her 60s. While she was an activist throughout her life, in her later years she became more concerned with climate change, delivering lectures on the issues. This past year, Hillary was still traveling the world. “[A]t 87, she ventured to Outer Mongolia, where she visited a nomadic tribe whose rural way of life was disappearing because of climate change and the desertification of the steppes,” writes the Times.

She also—not surprisingly—was a motivational speaker. Her wit persistently shines in all her interviews, as it did in her 2018 conversation with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. when she recounted that fateful decision to go north.

Advertisement

“When I retired from nursing, I wanted to do something. And I wanted to be surrounded by interesting people,” Hillary told the CBC. “So I looked at cruise ships, and I said to myself, that is death. Imagine being stuck on a ship with married people—boring!”

Later in the interview, she advised that “all of us can reach the North Pole and the South Pole, but it’s up to the individual to decide what that South Pole and North Pole is going to be, and where it’s going to be.”

Advertisement

But perhaps her most applicable bit of advice—given to the New Yorker on how to live a good life (Hillary, of people, would have known)—is this:

“One, mind your own business; two, maintain a sense of humor; and three, tell an individual to go to hell when it’s needed.”

Share This Story

About the author

Anne Branigin

Staff writer, The Root. Sometimes I blog slow, sometimes I blog quick. Do you have this in coconut?