Happy Black History Month!
Today, let’s honor and remember legendary Arctic explorer Matthew Alexander Henson–the first man on the North Pole.
Our first post demo park project “Miracle on McKean” is in the Matthew Henson Community, located in the Sandtown-Winchester neighborhood of West Baltimore. The community is named after the first man to reach the North Pole, renowned explorer Matthew Alexander Henson!
Matthew Alexander Henson was born in Charles County, Maryland in 1866 on his parent’s farm east of the Potomac River. His parents were sharecroppers and free people of color before the American Civil War. Matthew’s parents were regularly brutalized and terrorized by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, after the Civil War.
Around the age of 10 years old, Henson was greatly inspired by a speech given by Frederick Douglass
. Douglass being an acclaimed orator called upon Black people to vigorously pursue educational opportunities and battle racial prejudice.
Henson was thus inspired and left school at 12 and made his way to Baltimore’s ports to become cabin boy. He traveled to China, Japan, Africa, and the Russian Arctic seas. The ship’s Captain Childs, took Henson under his wing and taught him to read and write.
He returned home and at the age of 21 and connected with explorer Robert Peary. Peary was impressed with Henson’s sea experience and hired him for an expedition to Nicaragua. He quickly became Peary’s right hand man and together they spent 18 years on expeditions together, including seven voyages to the Arctic.
Their first Arctic expedition was in 1887. First man Henson served as a navigator and craftsman.
Henson studied Inuit survival techniques
and mastered the Inuit language. The community embraced his gracious manner and he earned his nickname “Mahri-Pahluk” meaning Matthew The Kind One. Matthew was always deeply indebted to his Inuit family for everything they taught him.
In 1909, after 18 years of Arctic experience, skill, and accumulated knowledge, Henson and Peary made a successful expedition to the North Pole. The journey took teams of men, supplies, trail breaking Inuit sledge drivers and the best dogs available. One man died and others almost drowned, yet they managed to reach the North Pole. It was an enormous feat which we can only now fully appreciate how difficult and truly treacherous this journey was.
After the legendary expedition no one returned to the North Pole until an airplane flew over it in 1926. The Henson & Peary 1909 North Pole expedition is still a bold achievement of strategy, skill and great tenacity.
During expeditions from 1891-1909, they uncovered many discoveries. They retrieved meteorites, one of which weighed over 70,000 pounds, now displayed at the American Museum of Natural History
. They proved that the North Pole is over a deep but partially frozen ocean. They brought back animal specimens, photographs and written accounts of the native Inuit’s ways of survival in such an extreme climate. Matthew Henson worked with the Natural History Museum in New York to create accurate exhibits depicting the people and animals of the North.
In 1912 Henson published a memoir titled A Negro Explorer
at the North Pole. In 1937 he was the first African American to be made a lifetime member of The Explorers Club
, an elite organization. In 1944 Henson was awarded the Peary Polar Expedition Medal and was received at the White House by Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. He later collaborated with author Bradley Robinson on his 1947 biography, Dark Companion
, which told more about his life.
He received many posthumous awards and recognitions. In 2000 Henson was awarded the Hubbard Medal by the National Geographic Society. In September 2021, the International Astronomical Union named a lunar crater after him.
Miracle on McKean being in the Matthew Henson neighborhood is fitting for a place so wholesome, kind, full of character just like Henson himself.
Read more of our Black History Month coverage: here