The 100th anniversary of the discovery of the North Pole was marked this year on April 6. For more than 20 years, Harvard Foundation Director S. Allen Counter has made it a mission to bring to light the work of Matthew Henson, the African-American Arctic aide of Robert Peary, the sole explorer credited for reaching the North Pole in 1909.
Both explorers served in the U.S. Navy — Peary was a commander, and at the time of the North Pole exploration, he was on a military mission of geographic discovery, while Henson was a messenger and a field assistant (the highest positions that a “colored” man could hold in the Navy at that time, Counter explained).
“Henson, who by some accounts reached the North Pole first, and of whom Cmdr. Peary has said, ‘I cannot make it without him,’ was ignored by the press and left out of the history books because of racial attitudes in the United States toward African Americans at that time,” explained Counter.
Through a series of meetings in the 1980s with Peary’s and Henson’s sons, born to Inuit women in Greenland, Counter oversaw the Harvard North Pole Family Reunion, which was completed in 1987. Counter flew the explorers’ 80-year-old sons to the United States to meet the American Henson family and to attend a reinterment ceremony as Counter’s request to remove Henson’s remains from a common grave in New York’s Woodlawn Cemetery was approved.
Henson’s body was reinterred in Arlington National Cemetery adjacent to Peary’s grave with a fitting new monument and full military honors. The story captured the American imagination and was national news. It is covered in Counter’s book “North Pole Legacy: Black, White, and Eskimo” (University of Massachusetts Press, 1991).
Founding what is now called the Harvard North Pole Discovery Centennial Commemorative Project, Counter promised the explorers’ sons, who are now deceased, that he would travel with members of their Inuit families to the North Pole on the centennial commemoration of the North Pole discovery by their American fathers.
In the village of Qaanaaq, Greenland, about 40 descendants of Henson and Peary gathered in the local schoolhouse on April 6.
Using the explorers’ Navy history, Counter arranged for the USS Annapolis to travel to the North Pole carrying a sealed memorabilia case honoring the two explorers.
During the ceremony, Counter presented the families with the case containing an American flag; a Holy Bible from Harvard’s Memorial Church, signed and dedicated to the North Pole centennial by the Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes; Peary’s 1910 book, “The North Pole”; Henson’s 1910 book, “A Negro Explorer at the North Pole”; a letter from President Ronald Reagan in recognition of Peary’s and Henson’s achievements and their sons’ visit to America in 1987; Counter’s book chronicling the events; and Inuit ephemera, as well as photographs, letters, and poems from others associated with or touched by the story of Peary, Henson, and their Greenlandic descendants.
“During the ceremony, I presented the families with a letter sent to me by President Barack Obama to mark the occasion,” said Counter.
An excerpt of Obama’s letter reads: “I am pleased to join all who are commemorating the last hundred years of Arctic exploration. … It is only fitting that we honor all those who have risked their lives and well-being to expand our knowledge of our continuously evolving planet.”