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Famous Freemason - Matthew Alexander Henson

"I think I'm the first man to sit on top of the world."

Matthew Alexander Henson was an African 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.

Henson was born in Nanjemoy, Maryland, to sharecropper parents who were free Black Americans before the Civil War. He spent most of his early life in Washington, D.C., but left school at the age of twelve to work as a cabin boy. He later returned to Washington and worked as a salesclerk at a good department store. One of his customers was Robert Peary, who in 1887 hired him as a personal valet. At the time, Peary was working on the Nicaragua Canal.

Their first Arctic expedition together was in 1891–92. Henson served as a navigator and craftsman, and was known as Peary's "first man". Like Peary, he studied Inuit survival techniques.

During their 1908–09 expedition to Greenland, Henson was one of the six men – including Peary and four Inuit assistants – who claimed to have been the first to reach the geographic North Pole. In interviews, Henson identified as the first member of the party to reach what they believed was the pole. Their claim had gained widespread acceptance but in 1989, Wally Herbert published research that found that their expedition records were unreliable and indicated an implausibly high speed during their final rush for the pole, and that the men could have fallen 30–60 miles (48–97 km) short of the pole due to navigational errors.

Henson achieved a degree of fame as a result of participating in the expedition, and in 1912, he published a memoir titled A Negro Explorer at the North Pole. As he approached old age, his exploits received renewed attention. In 1937, he was the first African American to be made a life member of The Explorers Club; in 1948 he was elevated to the club's highest level of membership. In 1944, Henson was awarded the Peary Polar Expedition Medal, and he was received at the White House by Presidents Harry Truman and Dwight Eisenhower. In 1988, he and his wife were re-interred at Arlington National Cemetery. In 2000, Henson posthumously was awarded the Hubbard Medal by the National Geographic Society. In September 2021, the International Astronomical Union named a lunar crater after him.

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