In 1909, Robert Peary, Class of 1877, led his famous expedition to the North Pole. But many do not realize that it was, in fact, an African-American man, Peary’s companion Matthew Alexander Henson, and not Peary himself, who first stood on the pole. Peary’s name would be quickly remembered and Henson’s subsequently forgotten until Henson’s death in 1955, when historians finally acknowledged him for his contributions to this remarkable feat.
Until December 31, the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum will be honoring Henson’s life in the exhibition, “Matthew Alexander Henson: First African-American at the North Pole,” which is on display in the Hubbard Hall lobby adjacent to the museum.
“We want to remind people that … Peary had this amazing right-hand man who was an African-American at a time when African-Americans were really denied a lot of opportunities,” said Genevieve LeMoine, the museum’s curator.
The exhibition coincides with the 50th anniversary of the founding of Bowdoin’s Africana studies program, the African-American Society (Af-Am) and the John Brown Russwurm African-American Center. A college-wide celebration of the anniversary will begin on November 8 and will include three days of lectures, symposia, art exhibitions, conversation, live music and parties.
“We wanted to mark the 50th anniversary of the Afro-American Center. And so [the College] asked us if we wanted to be part of [the celebration], and of course we did,” said LeMoine. “[Henson] is our shining example of the many wonderful African-American people in American history that have been neglected.”
“I think that our goal in putting up this exhibit is to bring more attention to his accomplishments because I think in many circles he is still an overlooked, very, very accomplished man,” said Susan Kaplan, director of the Peary-MacMillan Arctic Museum and Arctic Studies Center. “It certainly doesn’t address the history of the Af-Am here at Bowdoin, but it is another example of African Americans in history who past scholarship has not always acknowledged and treated fairly.”
LeMoine built the exhibit from the pre-existing material in its permanent collection about Henson. The prized piece of this collection is footage from Henson’s interview with a United Press journalist in 1951, when he was 85 years old.
The museum is very proud of this footage, since there are very few recordings of Henson.
“We had an intern who searched high and low in 2007 to 2008 to find any examples of Henson on film, and it took her a long time, but she did eventually track that piece down,” said Kaplan.
Crucial to understanding the relationship between Peary and Henson, and specifically Henson’s many contributions to their expeditions, is a quote from Peary included in the exhibit: “I can’t get along without Henson.”
Henson was responsible for building all of the sleds used by Peary’s exploration party. One of them, named the Hubbard Sled, is on display as part of the exhibit. Henson was also the only member of the party who became fluent in Inuktun, the Inughuit language spoken in northwestern Greenland, and he became beloved by the Inughuit community, which nicknamed him “Kind Matthew.” In fact, Henson married an Inuit woman whom he met through his travels, and together they had a son.
LeMoine researched Henson’s life while doing field work in Greenland.
“There [are] not people still alive who remember him, but they have heard stories about him because he has family there,” said LeMoine. “They had a great deal of respect for him, and they had a really loving relationship [with him].”
Before his death, Henson was awarded honorary degrees by Howard University and Morgan College, and the Chicago Geographical Society awarded him the same medals and honors it had given to other members of the expedition years earlier. Henson was also honored by President Dwight Eisenhower at the White House in 1955. In 2000, the National Geographic Society posthumously awarded Henson the Hubbard Medal, which was originally created for Peary.
The presence of this exhibit in correlation with the celebration of Af-Am’s 50th anniversary reflects upon and is an attempt to change the narratives around Arctic exploration and even the arts at Bowdoin.
LeMoine said that she hopes the exhibit will contribute to a broader discussion about the way the story of the Arctic is told.
“We’re very much dedicated to broadening the narrative,” said LeMoine. “In academia generally there’s a great movement towards broadening these pictures and moving away from just this hero worship, [and] this exhibit is sort of part of that whole agenda.”
“I think it’s worth all of our time to pay more attention and give him the due that he didn’t really get while he was alive,” said LeMoine.
Cole van Miltenburg contributed to this report.