"A portrait is a picture in which there is just a tiny little something not quite right about the mouth." -- John Singer Sargent

Monday, February 15, 2021

Matthew Henson

This 1943 Mural of Matthew Alexander Henson Planting the American Flag at the North Pole by Austin Mecklem is in the Recorder of Deeds building in Washington, DC. Photo by Carol Highsmith.
Matthew Alexander Henson (August 8, 1866 – March 9, 1955) was an American explorer who accompanied Robert Peary on seven voyages to the Arctic over a period of nearly 23 years. They spent a total of 18 years on expeditions together. He is best known for his participation in the 1908–1909 expedition that claimed to have reached the geographic North Pole on April 6, 1909. Henson said he was the first of their party to reach the pole. -- Wikipedia
The label on the mural reads:

Commander Peary and Matthew Henson
at the North Pole, By Austin Mecklem

Austin Mecklem's signature can be seen in the lower left corner. 

Austin Mecklem   1943

This is one of a set of murals painted in the 1941, Recorder of Deeds building. The murals were sponsored by the  WPA and show African Americans participating in historic events. The Recorder of Deeds became a federal job traditionally given to African Americans, after Frederick Douglas held the position.  

Henson is shown planting the American Flag on the north pole while Peary lies ill in a sledge, looking on.

Robert Peary

Charles Henry Alston, in a WWII propaganda poster,  also in 1943, tells the story the same way.

According to Commander [Donald Baxter] MacMillan, it was Henson, who actually planted the Stars and Stripes on the top of the world, while Peary exhausted and ill, sat on the sledge and feebly waved his hand. 


Explorer Mat Henson, Only living American to set foot on the North Pole.

The African American community lionized Henson after the polar expedition but the general public payed him little attention. However, this trading card, published in 1910 came with the American Tobacco Company's Hassan Cork Tip cigarettes (LOC). 

Matthew A. Henson

 After Peary's death, Henson's star began to rise. He was admitted to the Explorers Club in New York in 1919, and became an honorary member in 1948. In 1944 he and the other members of the polar expedition received the Peary Exploration Medal. 

In 1954, Henson was invited to the Whitehouse and met president. Eisenhower.

Matthew Henson at the Whitehouse, 1954.

Matthew Henson died at age 88 on Mach 9, 1955. He was initially buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in NY, but was re-interred at Arlington in 1988.



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