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24 January 2021

Remembering Ms. Barbara Hillary:

The First African American to Reach Both Poles

This piece is dedicated to African American history, black explorers and black youth everywhere aspiring and daring to dream big. We are the hope and dream of a slave! 

It has been over 100 years since the first African American reached the North Pole in 1908. This achievement is credited to Mr. Matthew Henson; dubbed a Black Inuit for his love and close relationship with the Inuit people of the Aleutian Islands and his fluency in the Inuit language. The world had long forgotten about Mr. Henson and the four native Inuit assistants who courageously journeyed toward the North Pole. Mr. Henson’s claim to fame resurfaced when Ms. Barbara Hillary became the first African American woman to stand at the North Pole at the age of 75 on April 23, 2007, and four years later to the South Pole at age 79 on January 6, 2011. In 2019, Ms. Hillary, trailblazer on top and bottom of the world passed away. She left behind an incredible mark on the world and a significant contribution to African American history.

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Ms. Barbara Hillary at the South Pole in 2011.

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Ms. Barbara Hillary at the North Pole in 2007.

Upon retiring at the age of 62 as a gerontology nurse Ms. Hillary decided to do something different. She learned that there was no record of a black woman having been to the North Pole, and as simple as that, the idea to go to one of the coldest places on Earth took shape. Having no experience in cross country skiing, insufficient funds to support her Arctic expedition, and concerns regarding her age and compromised health due to surviving breast cancer twice, and her then breathing capacity cut by 25% to remove cancerous lung tissue did not deter Ms. Hillary from fulfilling her dream. She persevered! Gearing up for the challenge and physical tests in Norway, she began lifting weights, snowmobiling, learning to dog-sled, mastered cross-country skiing with harnessed supplies by practicing pulling a tire tied to her waist through the streets of Queens, New York. She managed to raise $25,000 for her expedition and trained nearly a year for her journey toward the North Pole.

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The strength and dedication of Ms. Hillary matches the grit of many others, including that of forgotten trailblazers Matthew Henson and Ada Blackjack, an Iñupiat Seamstress from Nome, Alaska who survived an all-male expedition to the Siberian Arctic. Ms. Hillary earned her bachelor and master degrees at the New School in New York City. She was an inspirational speaker and climate change activist who ventured to Outer Mongolia in late February 2019 to visit a nomadic tribe and discuss changes in their rural way of life due to climate change. She was the founder of the Arvene Action Association in Far Rockaway, Queens, New York and the editor-in-chief of the Peninsula Magazine, a non-profit, multi-racial magazine serving the Far Rockaway peninsula community. The magazine was the first of its kind to improve the lives of the residents in the Rockaways. In June 2007, the U.S House of Representatives passed a resolution honoring Ms. Hillary for making history as the first African American woman on record to reach the North Pole.

As I reflect on the life and achievements of Ms. Barbara Hillary, I can’t help but see a reflection of myself. As a native of Orangeburg, South Carolina I grew up in a society that didn’t identify black men and women largely as explorers or trailblazers contributing to US history and the history of polar exploration. This was not a narrative meant for people like myself and others who identity as black, indigenous, or a person of color (BIPOC). And like Ms. Hillary, I too decided to do something different; something bigger than and outside of myself; to pursue a career in the polar field focusing on the social and human dimension in Arctic affairs, the conservation of marine ecosystems in the Antarctic, and improving efforts to diversify and include BIPOC in all areas of polar research and policy. 

Despite the many obstacles Ms. Hillary faced they were no match for her dedication and commitment to achieving a dream that serves as a shining example for us all. Having faced adversity numerous times, myself simply motivates me to stand up and push forward again much like Ms. Hillary did. It is also a testament that one’s determination to rise up brighter and stronger speaks directly to the fact that there are nor should there be limitations to what one can achieve.

I’m honored to follow in Ms. Hillary’s footsteps; to debunk stereotypes about underrepresented communities interested in exploring extreme or polar climates. Ms. Hillary chose to go to the poles because of her interest to explore a region that most will never see in their lifetime. Her tenacity and willingness to step outside of the box that society created for her is a testament that BIPOC are most deserving of being in every space. We are seen, we are heard and we are represented! I am honored and privileged to work alongside and be uplifted by the women of color, Indigenous women and all others of different and similar backgrounds in the polar community. I hope to join my African American peers in making history to become the second African American woman to stand at both the North and South Pole for my professional and personal advancement. Ms. Hillary’s accomplishments are inspiring and challenge me to dream big and foster my passions. Not for nothing when I grow up, I want to be just like Ms. Hillary, but then I already am. 

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© Kimberly Aiken

© Kimberly Aiken

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Kimberly Aiken is the author of the commentary piece, Trailblazer in the Arctic:

A Tribute to the First African American to Reach Both Poles first published with the Arctic Institute. She is currently a Research and Policy Associate at the Antarctic and Southern Ocean Coalition. Follow Kimberly at aikenkimberly on Instagram and @aikenkimberly on Twitter.

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