Sitting on Top of the World
When one thinks of arctic exploration, the state of Maryland does not immediately come to mind. But Maryland’s connection to the history of polar exploration is more than tenuous, as two of its native sons occupy prominent places on the list of travelers to the northernmost point of the earth. When Baltimorean Herbert Frisby flew over the geographic North Pole aboard a U.S. Air Force B-29 on August 12, 1956, he became the second African-American to reach the point where all longitude lines converge and every direction is south.** Frisby was following in the trail blazed by another Marylander, Matthew Henson, who forty seven years earlier, became recognized as the first African-American to set foot on the North Pole as a member of Admiral Robert Peary’s expedition, credited with reaching the pole on April 6, 1909. An arctic explorer in his own right, Frisby gained greater fame in his quest to see his fellow Marylander recognized as co-discoverer of the North Pole alongside Robert Peary.
Herbert Frisby was born on Lee Street in southwest Baltimore, near what is today Camden Yards. Details of his early life are murky—Frisby was somewhat cagey about certain details of his life, particularly his age. According to census records he was born in 1888, but in published interviews Frisby would often avoid answering direct questions about how old he was. In a 1977 Baltimore Evening Sun article he would say only that he was in his 80s. It is also unclear when Frisby first became aware of Matthew Henson. In what is most surely an apocryphal story, Frisby claimed to have first heard of the story of Henson’s voyage to the North Pole when he was in the sixth grade. In the audio excerpt below taken from an interview conducted in 1971, Frisby discusses his recollections of the event that altered the course of his life.
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By all indications, Frisby was a student at Howard University at the time of the Peary expedition in 1909, having graduated from Baltimore’s Colored High and Training School (renamed Douglass high school in 1923) in 1908. He worked his way through college playing the piano and taking various odd jobs. Upon graduating in 1912, he took a teaching post at an elementary school in Baltimore, and for the next 46 years was employed in various positions in Baltimore’s public school system. By the time he retired in 1958 as head of the science department at Douglass, a position he had held for over thirty years, he was a highly regarded educator whose commentary on various subjects could often be found in the pages of Baltimore’s Afro-American newspaper.
It was perhaps in his role as a science teacher that Frisby first became fascinated with the story of Matthew Henson and decided to follow in his footsteps. During World War II he received his first opportunity when he became a war correspondent in Alaska for the Afro-American. Frisby provided readers of the newspaper with accounts of his encounters with Eskimos and his travels through Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.
Just prior to his service as a correspondent, Frisby got a chance to meet his idol. According to Frisby he spent five years traveling from his home in Baltimore in search of Henson’s birthplace, a small cabin in the tiny village of Nanemejoy on the southwestern tip of Charles County. He eventually located it, and taking a piece of wood from the cabin, he travelled to New York in search of Henson, beginning a friendship that would last until Henson’s death in 1955.
Following his hero’s death, Frisby began a one man crusade to see Henson recognized as co-discoverer of the North Pole alongside Robert Peary. There had been many supporters to Henson’s claim, including the Afro-American, that he arrived at the Pole before the exhausted Peary. But Peary, as leader of the expedition, received credit for arriving first. Henson’s lack of recognition was also due in no small part to the color of his skin, and for much of the first half of the twentieth century he was largely ignored. Frisby took it upon himself to change this.
In 1955, Frisby established the Matthew Henson Memorial Project dedicated to commemorating Henson’s life and accomplishments. Four years later, Governor J. Millard Tawes established April 6 as Matthew Henson Day in Maryland. In 1962, largely through Frisby’s advocacy, Baltimore City Public School #29, located on North Payson Street, was renamed the Matthew Henson Elementary School. Frisby’s ultimate dream was realized on August 8, 1966, when a memorial plaque commemorating Matthew Henson’s arrival at the North Pole was unveiled at the Maryland State House. Bearing the inscription, “Matthew Alexander Henson, Co-Discover of the North Pole with Admiral Robert Edwin Peary, April 6, 1909,” the plaque was the first official endorsement of Matthew Henson and Robert Peary as equal partners in their expedition to the North Pole.
Another goal not realized in Frisby’s lifetime, was the fulfillment of Henson’s request to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery near the grave of Admiral Peary. In 1988, Henson’s remains were exhumed from Woodlawn cemetery in New York City and re-interred near Peary’s grave.
Frisby achieved a good deal of renown in his lifetime for his efforts on behalf of Matthew Henson, but he also received significant attention for his own arctic travels. By the time Frisby died in 1983, he had made over 26 trips to the polar regions—on one expedition he spent two months sharing an igloo with an Eskimo family. Reports of these excursions were often printed in the pages of the Afro-American. In 1965, a group of women inspired by Frisby’s accomplishments as an educator and explorer, established the Herbert M. Frisby Historical Society. The organization worked to promote the study of African-American history as well as continuing Frisby’s mission of promoting the legacy of Matthew Henson. In 1977 Mayor William Donald Schaeffer designated March 6 as Herbert M. Frisby Day in Baltimore in honor of the explorer’s life and accomplishments.
The story of Frisby’s quest to gain Matthew Henson recognition as “co-discoverer of the North Pole” is not without irony. Doubts over whether Henson and Robert Peary reached the pole have been widespread since their story was first announced to the world in the pages of the New York Times. Peary and another American explorer, Frederick Cook, emerged from the arctic wilderness in September of 1909 within a week of one another, with Cook claiming to have discovered the North Pole on April 21, 1908, a full year ahead of Peary. Both have had their share of detractors, but for most of the twentieth century Peary’s claim has been generally viewed as the more credible. In 1911, Peary’s claim was even formally endorsed by the U.S. Congress, although they too had strong reservations over the veracity of Peary’s claims.
In recent decades, the doubts have only increased. Another aspirant to the title of “discover of the North Pole,” American aviator Richard Byrd, who claimed to have flown over the pole by plane on May 9, 1926, has largely been discredited as well. Although the debate will probably never be conclusively resolved, today, credit is generally given to Norwegian Roald Amundsen as the being the first to arrive at the North Pole. Amundsen, who was also the first to reach the geographic South Pole in 1911, flew over the pole in a dirigible with his 15 man expedition on May 12, 1926, just a few days after Byrd claimed to.
So in all likelihood, Herbert Frisby, who is probably more remembered for his role as champion of Matthew Henson, rather than for his own arctic exploits, was the first African-American to reach the top of the world. (Damon Talbot)
**The geographic North Pole is the northernmost point of the earth, and is the direction of true north. It is the point where the earth’s axis of rotation meets its surface. The North magnetic pole is the point where the earth’s magnetic field points vertically downward and where traditional magnetic compasses point towards. The magnetic pole is in constant motion and located some 200 miles south of the geographic North Pole.
Sources and further reading:
Herbert Frisby, interview, 1971, MdHS, OH 8015.
“North Pole became this family’s guiding light,” Clarice Scriber, The Baltimore Sun, January 31, 1991.