Matthew Alexander Henson, the African-American explorer (1866-1955)

January 31, 2006
First edition of Matthew A. Henson's autobiography

First edition of Matthew A. Henson's autobiography, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, Frederick A. Stokes, publishers, 1912. Purchased for the John Hope Franklin Collection of African and African American Documentation.

Matthew Alexander Henson, the African-American explorer (1866-1955), is best remembered for his participation in Admiral Robert E. Peary's 1909 expedition, said to be the first to reach the North Pole. Henson's autobiography, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, published in 1912, actually contains accounts of eight expeditions--one to Nicaragua and seven to the Arctic--that Henson took with Peary. The book is illustrated with reproductions of black-and-white photographs, some of which were taken by Henson himself.

Henson's account of the various expeditions is significant in itself. But supplementary material, including a foreword from Peary and an introduction by Booker T. Washington, offer a noteworthy critical framework for understanding race relations at the time of the book's publication.

The prefatory statements, in discussing Henson's accomplishments, describe how his particular skills contributed to the success of the mission but contextualize individual achievements in a larger discussion of race. Peary emphasizes that reaching the North Pole was the result not of "alone individuals, but races," thereby suggesting that the success of the mission was the result of racial cooperation.

Washington addresses these same issues from a different perspective. He sees Henson's participation in the expedition as part of the larger history of African Americans and their role in western exploration. While Washington notes that Henson deserves recognition irrespective of his race, he also celebrates the memoir as a contribution to the documented record and history of the African-American experience.