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National Geographic Society Honors Arctic Explorer

In a ceremony overlooking the Anacostia River in Washington, D.C., arctic explorer Matthew Henson was posthumously awarded the National Geographic Society’s highest honor—the Hubbard Medal.

Matthew Henson's great-niece Audrey Mebane and Harvard Foundation Director Allen Counter celebrate Henson's posthumous receipt of the Hubbard Medal.
Photograph by Jonathan Kirshner

National Geographic Society President John Fahey presented Matthew Henson’s great niece, Audrey Mebane, with the Hubbard Medal at the Matthew Henson Earth Conservation Center.

“The honor is long overdue,” said Fahey at the November ceremony.

The medal recognized Henson’s role in several arctic expeditions with Robert E. Peary, including their historic 1909 trek to the North Pole.

“I had always been told by my grandmother that there was a black man [on the 1909 expedition],” said Allen Counter, director of Harvard University’s Harvard Foundation, an organization that promotes intercultural understanding. “She took great pride in saying that.”

Counter has become one of Henson’s strongest proponents, researching Henson’s polar treks and asking organizations, including National Geographic, to properly recognize the African American explorer.

To the Pole

Henson’s voyage into history began when he was hired as Peary’s assistant in 1888. Already a seasoned seaman, Henson’s keen navigational, linguistic, and hunting skills soon made him an indispensable companion to Peary.

In 1909, Peary, Henson, and four Inuit assistants reached the North Pole, making Peary and Henson the first Americans to stand at the Pole.

At that time, pointed out Counter, “Reaching the North Pole was tantamount to reaching the moon.”

Upon their return, however, the road to equal recognition for Henson was often blocked by racial barriers of early 20th century America.

Peary, meanwhile, received many honors, including the Hubbard Medal, and in 1920 he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery with full military honors.

Recognition at Last

Recent efforts to place Henson on equal footing with Peary are slowly meeting with success.

At Counter’s urging, in 1988 Henson and his wife were reinterred at Arlington National Cemetery alongside his fellow explorer, Robert Peary.

In 1996, the U.S.N.S. Henson, an oceanographic survey ship, was commissioned to honor the explorer.

The National Geographic Society’s Hubbard Medal presentation, also initiated by Counter, came nearly a hundred years after Peary and one of his assistants had already received the medal.

“What surprised me,” Counter said, “was that the National Geographic Society had given the Hubbard Medal to another member of the expedition who was white [but who] never made it to the North Pole.”

“Henson got very little recognition,” conceded Fahey, “[but] today we have an opportunity to change this.”

Counter said that efforts by organizations such as National Geographic, albeit belated, were important to restoring honor to Henson as well as the award-givers.

“It sets the record straight,” said Counter. “This is a great day for National Geographic as well as for Henson and the Henson family.”

(c) 2000 The National Geographic Society

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Restoring a River and Sense of Community

The Matthew Henson Earth Conservation Center overlooks the Anacostia River, a river that the center hopes to help restore following decades of pollution and neglect.

The newly-renovated center will soon serve as a Washington, D.C. hub of the Earth Conservation Corps (ECC).

Founded in 1989, the ECC is a non-profit organization that works to rebuild community spirit through environmental education and restoration.

In Washington’s Anacostia area, members of the ECC have reintroduced sixteen bald eagles, restored miles of shoreline, and planted hundreds of trees.

In conjunction with the Hubbard award ceremony, the National Geographic Society's Education Foundation donated U.S.$50,000 to the Henson Center to help ECC members study and restore the Anacostia River environment.