Admiral Perry first to the Pole? Not according to a growing group who give a black man the honor.
“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.
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