Tag Archives: Matthew Henson

Frozen Smiles: Matthew Henson and the Elusive North Pole

I live in Buffalo, where we regularly get foot after foot of snow that has to be driven through, trudged through, and shoveled for months of the year.  Therefore, the thought of going to the North Pole has never been something that ever appealed to me in the least, unless Santa Claus took me in his reindeer sled.  But there are those who not only were interested in being one of the first people who found the North Pole, they were willing to risk months of loneliness and boredom, a monotonous and unappealing diet, and loss of fingers, toes, or even their lives to try to get there.  One of these people was the African-American Matthew Henson.


Henson, who went on several Arctic expeditions with Robert Peary, was finally honored with a (joint) stamp in 1986.

Henson, born in Maryland a year after the end of the Civil War, left home after his parents died and went to seek work in Washington DC.  He did any work he could find, including sailing with a merchant ship and clerking in a store; although his white employers were kind, he faced considerable racism in Washington in reconstruction-era America, and found that he was treated more equally on board ships.  It was perhaps for this reason that when Robert Peary came into the shop where Henson was clerking, he accepted Peary’s officer to serve as his valet on an expedition to Nicaragua.  When Peary announced four years later, in 1891, that he wanted to be the first to reach the North Pole, Henson—who had previously been to Russian ports in winter on the merchant ship—agreed to go with him.  In 1909, after several attempts, Henson, Peary, and four Inuit members of the Arctic team, reached the North Pole and planted the American flag.  Henson’s sled was some distance ahead of Peary’s, and it was Henson who placed the flag at the pole.  I will note that there was controversy at the time over whether Peary’s team was first, and controversy later over whether they actually reached the pole or just came close, but whether they did or not is not really germane to what happened to Henson after they returned to the states.

Peary became an admiral and received various medals.  Henson became a messenger “boy”.  Henson was not invited to join the prestigious Explorers Club, not even when Peary was president; and when Peary received medals from various geographic societies around the world, Henson was neither invited to ceremonies nor similarly recognized.  Like Britain’s Walter Tull, whose achievements were similarly ignored in official circles a few years later, Henson failed to receive similar treatment to white people because of the color of his skin.


The book cover illustration by Paul Johnson seems to indicate racial equality (more or less) in the world of Arctic exploration.

Material written for children about arctic exploration and the North Pole also downplays or ignores Henson’s contributions.  White author Mike Salisbury, who worked in the arctic and researched for the BBC, published a book on Arctic Expedition (Victoria House 1989).  The book’s cover is promising because it includes one brown-skinned and one white-skinned child “explorer” driving dog sleds while walruses look on.


But Mike Salisbury’s text for Arctic Expedition does not even mention that Henson was African-American, and there are no accompanying pictures of him. All the historical explorers that are pictured are white.

The double-page spread on “Early Explorers” does mention Peary and Henson, but while there are illustrations of several other expeditions headed by white explorers, there is no illustration of either Peary or Henson, and the text does not indicate that Henson was African-American.  (In fact, the only person of color on the page at all is “an Inuit” who apparently does not have a name.)  Given the way that the book’s illustrations otherwise encourage Black and white children to be explorers, the failure to portray Henson is disappointing.  Children need role models, and historical heroes, and Henson is undisputedly both.  He learned the Inuit language (Peary did not, at least not to the extent that Henson did) and could drive a dog sled, which Peary also could not do.  Peary’s leadership and knowledge was necessary to the success of the trip, but so was Henson’s.

At least Salisbury mentions Henson.  The DK “Find Out” website (https://www.dkfindout.com/us/history/explorers/who-was-first-to-north-pole/), designed for children, says that “Robert Peary announced that he had reached the Pole in 1909, but because his men were not trained navigators, none of them could be sure”.  The picture accompanying the text shows an arctic sled, but no photographs of any of the explorers.  Again, this is an opportunity missed to highlight the bravery of people like Peary and Henson, whether they reached the pole first or not.


Part of a Golden Legacy: Matthew Henson is one of the heroes of Bertram Fitzgerald’s series.

Black writers, on the other hand, just like Black organizations and clubs in Henson’s time, have always celebrated Henson’s contribution to arctic exploration.  In 1969, the Golden Legacy comics (which I wrote about in a previous blog) did an entire issue dedicated to Henson.  And just this summer, Catherine Johnson, already known for her historical fiction (including Nest of Vipers and Sawbones) and ripped-from-the-historical-headlines narratives (The Curious Tale of the Lady Caraboo) published Race to the Frozen North: The Matthew Henson Story with Barrington Stoke.  Both these stories, written 50 years apart, emphasize Henson’s bravery as well as the racial prejudice that allowed his achievements to be doubted by his contemporaries and buried by history for many years.


Ha, ha, ha, microaggression is so funny! Now hand over that $100.

Both stories repeat an anecdote about a bet between Henson and a white colleague that he would not return from the North Pole with all his fingers and toes intact, and link the anecdote directly to the casual racism of the time.  It was common for explorers to lose fingers or toes to frostbite on such journeys, but in both accounts, the white colleague argues that it is impossible for a Black person to survive in cold temperatures.  This is the legacy of a racist version of human evolution that suggested people of African descent were acclimatized to hot countries, and therefore were best equipped to work (and be enslaved) on plantations, while white people were more adapted to colder countries, and had therefore learned to use their minds rather than their physical strength.  This legacy lives on in children’s biographies even now, where people of African descent are more likely to be found in sports biographies than in scientist biographies, so it is crucial to recognize this prejudice and change the paradigm, particularly in children’s books.

I found Johnson’s biography particularly engaging because it is written in the first person.  This allows the reader to get a hint of Henson’s personality: determined, curious, and practical.  Johnson’s Henson recognizes and abhors the prejudice he experiences—“I didn’t like it when people called me ‘boy’.  I was twenty-one—wasn’t I a man?” (61)—but he does not object out loud (“There was no point”; 61) and is quick to see past casual racism when he feels that a person is otherwise “open and honest” (61).  Henson takes jobs even when they don’t seem ideal: “I did not want to be a valet. A valet’s job was to iron and clean clothes.  But perhaps if it gave me the chance to travel again it might be worth it” (62).  His eagerness for adventure and his willingness to take on lesser roles and accept some prejudice to participate in exploration in uncharted territory makes the end of Henson’s story particularly poignant in Johnson’s account.  While the Golden Legacy comic quickly skims over Henson’s omission from the fame that came to Peary, Johnson shows Henson’s pain at being ignored, not just by medal-giving societies, but by Peary himself after their final expedition.  “Admiral Peary had never contacted me after our last trip. That made me very sad but I had to live in the present.  I always knew life would be different for me.  I was coloured.  But I knew that I had done great things” (117).  In this short passage, Johnson manages to highlight historical racism and suggest to readers that belief in oneself and a curious, open mind are the best antidote to the frozen smiles of a prejudiced society.

Leaving a Golden Legacy: Black History in Comic Book Form


The first volume in the Golden Legacy series dealt with the Haitian hero, Toussaint L’Ouverture.

I spent this past week working in Harlem’s Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, part of the New York Public Library System, trying to find out what young Black Panthers read.  This proved more difficult than I expected; while British supplementary schools kept neatly organized lists of books in their libraries, the liberation, Afro-centered, and Black independent schools of Harlem mostly seem to have kept copies of angry letters to council members, businesses, boards of education and politicians.  However, I did find catalogs from two booksellers who catered particularly to Black schools, the Bopi Book Center (a division of the Our School Cooperative, according to the letter at the beginning of the catalog, located in Harlem, and Afram Associates, located about ten blocks away and also in Harlem.  Both these booksellers focused on positive self-images for Black children; the Bopi catalog was a bit broader in scope, offering mainstream as well as independent publishers’ books (William Armstrong’s Sounder and Leo Lionni’s Swimmy are on their list, for example).  But the Bopi Book center also included a set of comic books called The Golden Legacy series, Black biographies for 8-14 year olds, from the Black comic book publisher and writer Bertram Fitzgerald.  Fitzgerald, also a Harlem native, began publishing The Golden Legacy series in 1966; he later said that, “Golden Legacy was designed to create greater pride and self-esteem in African-American families and to dispel myths. (It) replaces feelings of hopelessness and unworthiness in black Americans …with a sense of pride and self-esteem” (http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/nytimes/obituary.aspx?pid=183577562).


Tony Tallorico’s fictional cowboy, Lobo, was the first African-American comic hero in a mainstream comic; first published in 1965.

Fitzgerald gathered quite a staff around him to help him with his comics.  The artists and writers included many Brooklyn- and Harlem-born people who had made or went on to make history of their own.  These included Tony Tallarico, who in 1965 had done artwork for the first issue of Lobo, the first mainstream comic (it was published by Dell) to feature an African-American main character. Joan Bacchus, who both wrote and illustrated for Golden Legacy, led preservation efforts for Weeksville, a 19th century community of free Blacks that included the first African-American female doctor.  Leo Carty went on to be a full-time artist who painted Caribbean landscapes and illustrated children’s book covers.  Perhaps the most subsequently famous person to work for Golden Legacy was the children’s book illustrator Tom Feelings, twice winner of the Caldecott and three-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Award.


Tom Feelings illustrated this life of Harriet Tubman while Joan Bauer wrote the story. Bauer would go on to save Weeksville, an early African-American settlement, from demolition the next year.

Feelings drew for the only Golden Legacy to feature a woman.  Harriet Tubman, the Moses of her People, written by Joan Bacchus and published in 1967, does not shy away from the brutality of slavery.  In the opening spread, two different white men are shown with whips, beating African-Americans.  Young Harriet Tubman is defiant against their cruelty, and puts herself, even as a child, between other enslaved people and the brutality of the overseer.


Tom Feelings would go on to focus on Black History, through his brilliantly rendered Middle Passage (1995) as well as with books for younger readers, like Tommy Traveler in the World of Black History (1991)

The Tubman story as written does not differ greatly from children’s books produced since, except perhaps in its willingness to show violence.  However, other of the Golden Legacy series are more groundbreaking.  Volume 5, The Life of Matthew Henson (1969) shows the microaggressions of white people.  When Henson is asked by Peary to go to Greenland, a white lieutenant jokes, “Ha, ha, ha! Say, Henson, I hear you’re going to Greenland . . . you’re a Negro, that cold climate will kill you!”  He bets Henson $100 that he won’t come back with “all your fingers and toes”—a bet that Henson, of course, wins.


Ha, ha, ha, microaggression is so funny! Now hand over that $100.

“Fred” Douglass is shown as an action-packed hero who dispatches overseers with his fists.  And volume 9, The Life of Robert Smalls (1970), even dares to show Abraham Lincoln as a president conflicted over whether or not to free the slaves.  This contrasts with many depictions of Lincoln as unquestionably abolitionist in children’s books, including the Caldecott-winning Abraham Lincoln (1940) by Ingri and Edgar Parin D’Aulaire.


Golden Legacy’s Lincoln is conflicted about freeing the slaves, conflicted about letting them fight in the Union Army.



Golden Legacy’s Lincoln contrasts with the more popular version of the president in children’s books, that he is the willing “savior” of African-Americans; one such depiction can be found in the D’Aulaire’s 1940 Caldecott-winning Abraham Lincoln.

One thing that the Golden Legacy series shies away from depicting is mixed-race sexual unions.  This is common in children’s literature when depicting children of an enslaved woman and her white slave-owner, but Golden Legacy also does not depict the marriages, common in the 18th and 19th centuries, of working-class white women and Black men.  Alexander Dumas is shown several times with his child, Alexander Dumas fils (the writer), but the boy’s mother is never shown.  This could have been because Dumas’ wife was not the boy’s mother—but both Ida Ferrier, an actress who married Dumas, and Marie-Laure-Catherine Labay, a dressmaker who had an affair with him, were white (as were most of the more than 40 mistresses that Dumas had over the course of his lifetime . . .).  Intriguingly, the Golden Legacy series even depicts the family of Walter F. White, who “could have lived an easier life as a white man, but instead, he chose to live proudly as a Black man” as appearing all white (which in real life they did, though they identified with their African-American heritage), but the story does not mention White’s second marriage to a white South African woman and how his children from his first marriage subsequently disowned him because of it.  Instead, it focuses on how White used his ability to pass as white to report on lynchings and other crimes against Black people in the south.


Walter F. White is depicted as a proud Black man who used his ability to “pass” to report on crimes against Blacks. Illustrator Ezra Jackson.

The series’ oddest volume in terms of its mission to dispel myths and increase pride and self-esteem in Black child readers is perhaps volume 12, Black Cowboys.  This volume seems to revel in the cowboy villain—Cherokee Bill, for example, is shown, gun drawn, cigarette in his mouth and with the words “Reward, Dead or Alive, Wanted” in the background.  His story ends in a noose.  This comic also, disappointingly, includes stereotypical “savage” Indians and scheming Mexicans.  More peaceful Black cowboys, such as the mustanger Bob Lemmons, get only a page compared to the violent cowboys’ (such as Cherokee Bill) several page spreads.


Cherokee Bill is not quite the hero found in other volumes . . .



. . . and the volume also includes attacking, avenging Indians and scheming Mexicans.

The Golden Legacy series continued to be published into the 1980s, when a court dispute with Bob Baylor, a rival publisher who tried to steal the original plates of the comics, nearly bankrupted Bertram Fitzgerald.  However, the series is still available (to my surprise) in a single volume from the publishing company (http://golden-legacy.com/shop/), and there’s even a teacher’s guide.  So your young readers too can be inspired by a Golden Legacy—if not by Fred Douglass’s fashion sense.


“Fred” Douglass, where DID you get those wide colors and groovy trousers? You are definitely a man ahead of your fashion moment.T