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African American Heritage Week: Matthew Henson

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Trekking further into lesser known African American figures, let's explore the life of Matthew Henson, the Arctic explorer.

Henson was born in 1866 in Maryland to freed sharecropper parents. When his father died when Henson was seven years old, he was uprooted and sent to Washington, D.C. to live with his uncle, who paid for some education, but soon passed away. Henson attended a black public school for 6 years, and made his way to Baltimore, Maryland to become a cabin boy. He was inspired by the work of Frederick Douglass to pursue education, and learned to read and write aboard the "Katie Hines."

Over 23 years, Matthew would go on seven total expeditions to the Arctic. He became knowledgeable in Inuit culture and language, and became an accomplished dog sled driver. His skill as a craftsman and knowledge of the native culture would prove famously beneficial in the 1909 expedition with Robert Peary. In the final leg of the journey to the North Pole, Henson was sent ahead to scout, for Peary was incapacitated and had to ride in one of the sleds. As recounted in "A Negro Explorer at the North Pole," Henson was the man to plant the American flag at the North Pole. He received a number of awards for his exploration despite claims that he never saw the Pole, and passed away at the ripe old age of 88.

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Photo: Wikimedia Commons. Public Domain.

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