One hundred years ago the North Pole was first reached by humans. A team consisting of Inuit guides Ootah, Seegloo, Egingwah, Ooqueah, and American explorers Matthew Henson and Robert E. Peary successfully made the journey after numerous previous attempts by Henson and Peary. Back in the U.S. the names of the Inuit guides didn't make the headlines. Neither did Matthew Henson's.
At the age of thirteen Henson was hired as a cabin boy by a sea captain. He sailed all over the world in this capacity, visiting China, Japan, North Africa, and the Black Sea. When he was eighteen the captain of his ship died, leaving him out of work. For the next two years he did odd jobs, taking whatever work he was allowed to do as a young black man. In 1886 he landed in Washington DC where he began steady employment with an exclusive furrier.
This is where he met Peary, who at the time was an officer in the U.S. Navy Corps of Civil Engineers. Peary hired Henson to travel south with him to Nicaragua on a mission of assessing the feasibility of building a shipping canal to connect the Atlantic and Pacific Oceans. Henson jumped at the opportunity to continue his explorer lifestyle. The two men worked well together and when Peary set his aims on reaching the North Pole, Henson was his automatic choice for exploration partner.
The men spent over two decades mapping parts of the north and searching for the best route to the North Pole. In 1906 they came close to the pole, but had to turn back for a lack of food. The team that Peary assembled for what would become his successful attempt consisted of a physician, an instructor of mathematics and physical training, an engineer, an athlete, the ship's captain, and Henson and Peary. Of the whole team, only Henson wasn't white.
As the team moved north, Peary progressively sent all of the team members back to base camp, until just he, Henson, and the Inuit guides made a dash for the pole. Building the route up to the pole took more workers than could reasonably make the final trek because the farther north they went, the less supplies they could carry and maintain.
Later Peary would justify his choice of Henson as his partner for making the final leg of the journey as a prudent choice given the fact that he was the most capable member of the team (other than the Inuit). Since they had been working together in Arctic exploration for twenty years, and Henson was widely recognized by the Inuit as the most capable non-Inuit person in Arctic travel, this assertion makes sense. However, Peary is quoted later as saying that he chose Henson simply because Henson's inferior race meant that he would not be able to find his way back to the ship, therefore Peary was forced to take him all the way or essentially abandon him to death.
Scholars postulate that Peary's true reason may have been a combination of his devotion to Henson as a partner of so many years, and also Peary's recognition that as a black man, Henson would not be afforded equal recognition for their accomplishments upon their return. Indeed, Peary was honored by leading scientific organizations as the "discoverer" of the North Pole, and given the National Geographic Society's highest honor, while Henson was ignored by the white media and society.
Frustratingly, according to Henson, he was actually the first human to reach the North Pole, although not by design. Peary miscalculated the location. At that point he was being pulled in a sled because he was unable to walk, having lost all but two toes to frostbite over the years. He told Henson to stop a few miles short of the point he estimated was the pole. Peary's plan, which he had confided to Ootah, and Ootah later shared with Henson, was to make Henson wait while Peary proceeded the last few miles on his own. Instead, Henson reached the pole first because he was out in front when they actually got to the pole, although no one realized this until the next day when Peary went on and then discovered his mistake. Still, it was Peary, and not Henson, who reaped the accolades for arriving at the North Pole before any other human.
(Above information from this resource.)
This kind of revision has long been a part of Arctic history. There is a myth that continues to persist even today that people of African descent do not and have not played an integral role in shaping life in the North.
During the gold rush many black stampeders moved north to seek their fortunes, just like everyone else. They endured the harsh conditions and eeked out a living in the Yukon. Lucille and Charles Hunter emigrated from the Deep South to the Northern Frontier. They were children of slaves and were attempting to leave behind the oppression their families had suffered. Their daughter Teslin (named after a camp of the same name on the Stikine Trail) was born enroute.
Once they reached Dawson City they opened a restaurant and mined their gold and silver claims. After Charles died Lucille continued to walk the 200 kilometres from Dawson City to their claims each year to mine. When World War II broke out she moved to Whitehorse (the capital of Yukon), where she set up a laundry. Her idea was to wash the linens of the workers who had been sent north to build the Alaska Highway. It proved a brilliant business move, and she continued to make a good living until she died in 1972 at the age of 93.
(Sandiford, Katharine. "A Hidden History." Up Here. January-February 2009: 36-43.)
After Pearl Harbor was bombed the U.S. government decided that a highway must be built to ensure an access route to the western extreme of the U.S. in order to fend off a possible Japanese invasion. The 1,442 mile Alaska-Canada Military Highway was finished in a record eight months. The road crossed 100 rivers and went through 11 mountain ranges. Of the 10,000 American soldiers who built the road while battling blinding snow, muskeg (a swampy version of quicksand), and temperatures that reached 70 degrees below zero, over a third of them were black.
The African American soldiers were given the most dangerous and harsh stretches of road to build, and lacked adequate supplies. Donald W. Nolan Sr., one of the black soldiers who worked on the road describes the conditions. "Leather would freeze...We'd take galoshes, rubber galoshes -- we called them `Arctics' -- and we'd wear three, four pairs of socks. We would double up on pants. We slept on the ground in pup tents." Despite blatant racism and deadly conditions, the African American soldiers carried out an engineering feat for the good of their country.
(LoLordo, Ann. "Black GIs helped carve a road across frozen hell." The Sun. Baltimore, Md. July 4, 1992: 1A.)
Black people continue to play a pivotal role in Arctic communities today. My apartment building alone, located in downtown Yellowknife, is home to accounting executives from Ghana and Nigeria, local business owners who have grown up here, government workers, and miners, all of African and West Indian descent. Yet many remain uninformed about black peoples' historical ties to the North.
Recently I was at the airport, waiting for a flight to one of the communities on the Arctic Ocean. There were two men sitting across from me, one of whom was black. The other man asked him where he was headed.
The black man responded, "Fort Resolute [a community on one of the Queen Elizabeth Islands in the Arctic Ocean]."
With confusion and a bit of skepticism in his voice the other man asked, "Why are you going there?"
The black man, clearly frustrated and having heard this line of questioning before, said forcefully, "Because that's where I live."
We would do well to remember that in 1909, exactly one hundred years ago, a black man was the very first human to reach the North Pole. Matthew Henson, Lucille and Charles Hunter, and Donald W. Nolan Sr. have always known what it would be best for the rest of us to get through our heads. The Arctic is home to many ethnicities, not just Aboriginals and Whites, and people of African descent have a long proud history here.