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Curtis Abraham

Robert Edwin Peary Sr, (L), Matthew Henson extended Inuit family in Greenland (C), and Matthew Alexander Henson (R)

Normally when two people make a discovery, common sense dictates that they should share the credit. But not when one is black and the other white. This is what happened to Matthew Henson, an African-American explorer, who escorted the American Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary (left) to the Geographic North Pole in 1909. Peary became a hero, Henson was buried in a common grave, reports Curtis Abraham

In1986, while on a medical research trip to northern Greenland to investigate cases of ear disease among the indigenous Inuits ("Eskimos"), the Harvard University professor, S. Allen Counter, an African-American neurologist and neurophysiologist, made one of the most intriguing discoveries in the history of geographic exploration.

Counter had been a life-long admirer of Matthew Henson, the African-American explorer who accompanied Rear Admiral Robert E. Peary as the first humans to reach the Geographic North Pole (the point in the northern hemisphere where the Earth's axis of rotation meets the Earth's surface) in 1909. However, for the remainder of his life, and for most of the 20th century for that matter, Henson's contribution to the North Pole discovery, which Allen Counter calls one of the greatest achievements in the history of geographic exploration, was largely ignored.

"Since childhood my grandmother talked about a hero named Matthew Henson who literally picked up and carried a white man to the North Pole in 1909 but had never been given credit for it in her lifetime," says Counter.

The story of Henson's heroics stayed with Counter until many years later when he was given the rare opportunity to read further archival material on Henson while in Sweden preparing for his Greenland expedition. He was particularly interested in learning from the Inuits about Henson the man; what these native peoples thought about him and about the North Pole discovery generally.

From Sweden, Counter made arrangements with the US Air Force and subsequently flew to the northernmost air-force base in the world, located in northern Greenland. Later, he was taken further north to the village of Moriusaq.

"In this village I was introduced to an elderly dark-skinned Eskimo [called Anaukaq] with big curly hair," remembers Counter. "He thought I was a relative because we were the same complexion. I assured him that I was another human relative but not a blood relative. But he refused to believe me.

"He was sure I was a blood relative; why else would anyone come so far north if they didn't come to visit a blood relative? However, I finally convinced this wonderful man that while I was not a blood relative, I wanted to get information about Matthew Henson. And at that moment he said to me: "I am the son of Manipanuk", which is what the Eskimos called Henson."

Professor Allen Counter (RIP) with Matthew Henson's Inuit relatives in Greenland

Allen Counter could scarcely believe his ears when this was translated to him. After all, in 1986 the year of Counter’s visit to Greenland, it was almost 80 years since the Peary/Henson discovery of the Geographic North Pole in 1909. However, Anaukaq Henson’s claim of being Matthew Henson’s legitimate son was later confirmed by other Inuits in Greenland. Equally incredulous was that Anaukaq would later introduce Counter to Kali Peary, son of Robert E. Peary.

Realizing the historical importance of his own discovery and with his translator in tow Counter documented as much as he could. “Being octogenarians Anaukaq Henson and Kali Peary knew that they were not going to live much longer and said to me that before they die they just wanted to reach out and physically touch a family member in America because they had never been to the land of their fathers or knew anything about any relatives.” remembers Counter, who is also the founding Director of the Harvard Foundation, an agency established by the President and Deans of Harvard University in 1980 to improve intercultural understanding, equality and peace among students, faculty, and the entire university community.


Back in the US, Counter tracked down several surviving family members of both men and ultimately managed to arrange, with the help of the US government, for them to travel from Greenland to America on board a C141 military plane. In the US Anaukaq Henson and Kali Peary met their respective relatives and toured cities that were important places in the lives of their fathers: Maryland and Maine where Henson and Peary were born as well as Washington, D.C. and New York. 

Prior to the visit of Anaukaq and Kail to America, there was the small matter of tracking down Henson’s final resting place. “I never knew where Henson was buried,” says Counter, “but later I found out that he was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in the Bronx, New York. I went out to the cemetery and discovered he was buried in a common grave. But because Peary was a White American he was buried in a hero’s grave at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.”  Although Woodlawn Cemetery would be the final resting place for many prominent African-Americans including Nobel laureate Ralph Bunche, Jazz impresario Miles Davis, romantic poet Countee Cullen among others, Counter pen to paper wrote then US President Ronald Reagan telling him about this grave injustice to one of America’s greatest heroes simply because of his skin color and requested that Henson deserved better. Reagan agreed and through a presidential decree Counter was granted permission to exhume Henson’s remains from Woodlawn Cemetery and on the 6th April 1988 he was laid to rest at Arlington National Cemetery among other American heroes. 

Further recognition of Henson contribution to polar exploration was to come. Counter had petitioned the National Geographic Society (NGS) for many years asking the organization to present Henson with their much converted award, the Hubbard Medal. That day finally came on 28th November 2000. Counter was in the company of Audrey Mebane, Henson's 74 year-old great-niece who received Henson’s posthumous award. The medal was presented at the newly named Matthew A. Henson Earth Conservation Center (MAHECC) in Washington, D.C. The medal was presented at the newly named Matthew A. Henson Earth Conservation Center (MAHECC) in Washington, D.C., and accompanied a scholarship given in Henson's name by NGS.


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