His early life sloshed at times, undefined like the open, wild sea.
He ran away at 13 and walked to Baltimore, on the other side of Washington, D.C., from his birthplace in Charles County, Md.
He was a stock clerk at a hat shop, and a valet.
But the ocean was his destiny.
He became an adept seaman, an invaluable member of the crew under Cmdr. Robert E. Peary on Peary’s most important voyage.
There was a wrinkle, of course, a complication: Matthew Alexander Henson was black.
The year of their historic trek to the North Pole was late in the early 1900s, a time not far removed from slavery.
But as Henson would later write, “Wherever the world’s work was done by a white man, he had been accompanied by a colored man.”
On April 6, 1909, Peary said they reached the North Pole.
“I think I’m the first man to sit on top of the world,” Henson, who’d ran ahead of the commander, told Peary.
In the following years, Peary earned much praise, though it also came with questions about whether he reached the North Pole or, as many believe today, he missed the mark by a few miles but didn’t reveal that to Henson.
Upon returning home, Peary got awards and honors while Henson struggled to find work. Henson parked cars in New York.
The African-American wasn’t given credit along with his white commander until decades after Henson’s death in 1955.
In 1988, his body was re-interred with full military honors at Arlington National Cemetery.
“We are assembled here today to right a tragic wrong,” S. Allen Counter, a Harvard professor and black history expert, said at the ceremony.
Henson is regarded today as the first African-American Arctic explorer.
Celebrate Black History Month
Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Monday through Thursday and Saturday, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to myAJC.com/black-history-month for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.
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