On April 6, 1909, African American explorer Matthew Henson and his team raced to be the first to get to the North Pole. They had been traveling for five weeks on a block of ice 413 nautical miles off the coast of Greenland. Henson and his sled were ahead of his five other team members and the rest of the pack of Canadian Inuit dogs. Conditions were extreme. It was 65 degrees below zero. The explorers continued to encounter ice cracks that would create open sections of water called leads. They mushed twelve to fourteen hours a day. And they were running low on food and energy.
Henson and Inuit guides at the North Pole in front of Peary’s igloo | Robert Peary
Henson was 50 yards (half a football field) ahead of his team when his Commander, Robert Edwin Peary, called him back to set up camp. The men built igloos and went to sleep. The next day, Peary measured their location in relationship to the sun. They had, after seven attempts, reached the top of the world.
In fact, they had overshot it—and when they went back to the exact location of the North Pole, Henson said (later in a newspaper article): “I could see that my footprints were the first at the spot.” But Matthew Henson did not receive credit for his incredible accomplishment. Not for a long while.
Matthew Alexander Henson was born on August 8, 1866, and his early years were not easy. He was orphaned at a very young age, and by the time he was eleven he had to find work and lodging on his own. At the age of twelve, he met a sailor who ignited his passion for the sea and he signed up as a cabin boy on the ship The Katie Hines. He spent the next six years on board where he learned school subjects in tandem with how to sail around the world.
When the captain of The Katie Hines died, Henson took a job with a furrier in D.C. and met Commander Peary, who worked for the Navy Corp of Civil Engineers mapping places around the world. The two hit it off immediately. Peary hired Henson and the two eventually embarked on what would become an eighteen-year exploration of the Arctic.
Peary had high aspirations and a desire for the spotlight, but Henson had the real talent. He built the dog sledges, and unlike Peary, immersed himself within the Inuit community. Henson learned survival skills and their language so he could communicate with the people who were critically important to their expeditions.
He was nicknamed Maripaluk, or “Kind Matthew,” by the Inuits.
Peary, though, was not as kind. He took full credit for “discovering” the North Pole. In fact, the whole United States was not kind. Racism permeated the expedition: why had Peary taken a Black* man on the journey? How could anyone believe Peary’s accomplishment if a Black man (and four Inuit men) were his only witnesses? The irony was that Peary was the unreliable narrator (his story of reaching the pole first was untrue), but he was ultimately celebrated as a hero.
It wasn’t until 1946 that Henson was awarded the same medal Peary received by the U.S. Navy. And in 1954, he was invited to the White House by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to receive commendation for his work as an explorer on behalf of the U.S.
Matthew Henson died on March 9, 1955, but it would be another thirty-three years before he was fully recognized for his achievements. In 1988, on the 79th anniversary of the North Pole discovery, Henson’s Inuit family had his remains moved to Arlington National Cemetery. In 1996, a survey ship was named the USNS Henson and in 2009, Henson’s great-granddaughter worked to have a stamp made in honor of the 100th anniversary of Henson’s incredible feat.
2009 stamp commemorating the centennial of Henson’s discovery of the North Pole | POST Greenland
While this reparation work was critical, it does not erase the harm inflicted on Henson when he was alive. Henson wrote in his memoir, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, of the moment he reached the North Pole: “...as the flag snapped and crackled with the wind, I felt a savage joy and exultation. Another world’s accomplishment was done and finished, and as in the past, from the beginning of history, wherever the world’s work was done by a white man, he had been accompanied by a colored man.”
In honor of Black History Month, let’s celebrate Matthew Henson and the many other Black adventurers who make up critical parts of our history—and make a commitment to uncovering more.
*We acknowledge different perspectives on capitalizing “Black” (versus “black")—all of which are vital pieces of the conversation. Please see WHO ARE WE for further thoughts on this, such as “What to call oneself and one’s people should be individually and collectively determined.”
Charles's imprisonment in the Tower of London | Wikipedia
In 1415, Charles the Duke of Orléans was imprisoned at the Tower of London after being captured by the British at the Battle of Agincourt. It was part of the Hundred Years’ War (which, by the way, is the basis for Shakespeare’s play HENRY V! Want to hear another crazy fact? The Second Hundred Years’ War lasted on and off for 116 years!) Charles had already led a tumultuous life. His father, Louis I, ruled the House of Orléans and his uncle, King Charles VI, ruled the House of Burgundy and they fought for control of France. Duke Charles was married at age twelve to his seventeen-year-old cousin (the daughter of his uncle). His father was murdered. His mother died soon after. And his wife/cousin died three years later. He married again. And then he was captured by the British at Agincourt. All this by age twenty-one. PHEW!
It was from his locked room in the tower, in 1415, that he wrote the valentine—and not just any valentine, mind you, but the very first valentine ever written. Romantic with a capital “R.”
Except that’s a Lie. With a capital “L.”
My Valentine - The History of Valentine
While Duke Charles was captured in the battle of Agincourt and brought to England, he was NOT locked in the tower. He was basically free to live a normal life. (He just couldn’t go back to France.) He learned English, he became a poet, and he did write a valentine poem (he wrote many, in fact), but he did NOT write it from prison and he did NOT write it to his wife. The poem was written between 1443–1460 and was most likely a parody on courtly love. Charles was making fun of the practice in his poem, explaining to a fictional assigned valentine that he was too old to fulfill his duties:
My Very Gentle Valentine
(loose translation by Michael R. Burch)
My very gentle Valentine,
Alas, for me you were born too soon,
As I was born too late for you!
May God forgive my jailer
Who has kept me from you this entire year.
I am sick without your love, my dear,
My very gentle Valentine.
So when was the first “real valentine” actually sent? The MOST LIKELY first valentine was written in 1477 in Norfolk, England, by Margery Brews to John Paston. They hoped to marry, but there were complications, including the fact that she didn’t have a “suitable” dowry and that John’s older brother (who was the head of the family at this point) was miffed because John hadn’t asked his permission before asking Margery to marry him. (John was also maybe a little desperate—he had already tried to marry TEN other women, but that’s another story.)
Possibly the oldest valentine, written by Margery Brews to her fiancé John Paston in 1477 | British Library
Margery and John were in love regardless, and they wrote letters to one another all through the year (spoiler alert!) prior to their marriage, including this one that Margery wrote to John, calling him her valentine. It is believed that this is the actual, true, first valentine ever written. The lovebirds married in 1484, but that did not stop letter exchanges. In fact, one written when John was away on business is archived at the British Library, along with the image above. Love letters seven years into a marriage?
Now that’s ROMANTIC. With a capital everything.
The day you were born (if you were born in the United States), you were issued a number unique to you by the federal government. It’s called your social security number and your parents eventually received a blue card in the mail with that number. It essentially proves your identity (your ID). If you’ve never seen this blue card, go ask your guardian to find it! We’ll wait…
Actually, your social security card is likely stored in a very safe place, maybe even in an actual safe, because without it, you sort of don’t exist—at least on paper—and you would have trouble with pretty much anything in the adult world: obtaining a driver’s license, getting a job, or opening a bank account.
Most of us don’t realize how vital this proof of our ID is, but Elizabeth Nyamwange does.
Courtesy of Elizabeth Nyamwange
Elizabeth is a 16-year-old first generation American citizen whose whole family lives in Kenya. She’s a senior at the Illinois Math and Science Academy in Aurora, IL and is especially interested in gender advocacy and computer science. While that’s impressive on its own, Elizabeth is also fluent in Swahili, is an experienced data analysis programmer, and a Youth Delegate to the United Nations Youth Advocacy Team. She has also conducted research at Harvard and Northwestern universities in the fields of epidemiology, computer science, and sociology.
When Elizabeth was little, her parents constantly quoted Nelson Mandela who said: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” She knows this on a granular level because she’s spent the past few years learning the urgency of education for girls through her family in Kenya. Girls aren’t typically issued IDs in Kenya so they can’t truly function in society. This made Elizabeth starkly aware of the inequality Kenyan citizens sometimes face—like not being able to access government buildings or cross regional borders without a passport (or even obtain a passport). And they certainly can’t pop a bank card into an ATM to grab cash.
Those simple actions essentially declare to the world, in Elizabeth’s words, “I exist. I belong.” Here are some more of her own words about fighting for gender-equitable technology and her ambition to create a portable, solar-powered fingerprint scanner.
Hi Elizabeth! Let’s dive right in! Were you always interested in technology and coding?
I had always been interested in sociology, purely as a result of my gender, race, and my interest in how the two intertwined. I always liked reading books on race and intersectionality, and I grew up hoping to go into this field.
I didn’t know anything about computer science until I was required to take an introductory class at my high school. I struggled at the start and had no interest in the course, but once I started working on developing computer projects in fields I was interested in, it made the work so much more enjoyable.
What inspired you to first imagine a fingerprint scanner? What was the path that led you to create Etana (which is a Swahili girl’s name that means dedication, peace, and prosperity)?
Post-COVID-19, I became really interested in how the pandemic was disproportionately affecting women around the world. I started doing a lot of research on the digital inclusion gap, the number of girls who were out of school, etc. At around the same time, I was becoming really interested in computer science and started looking for ways to combine computer science with my interest in gender and gender equality.
Wow, SUCH an inspiring way to think about your passions and where they intersect with what the world truly needs. Easy-to-access identification isn’t available to over one billion people across the globe. What were the steps in creating Etana?
Courtesy of Elizabeth Nyamwange
First I started developing the code for this project. I taught myself how to work with blockchain [a system of recording information in a way that makes it difficult or impossible to change, hack, or cheat the system] by building online digital and decentralized wallets. I learned how to work with biometrics and created a program that can take any sort of biometric data (we use fingerprints) and convert it into a cryptographic hash [an equation used to verify the validity of data]. From this, I started expanding the program further, creating software that sends this converted data, and which is very similar to how phones send texts. After completing the code, I started learning microcontroller applications and designing the UI [how people will interact with a device or program, or User Interface]. I created tons and tons of models, started learning how to work with solar panels, and eventually developed a working prototype.
Can you describe (in simple terms!) how Etana works?
Etana is a device created for women who have no form of identification. These women cannot vote or open bank accounts and often live in very remote areas. Etana takes these women’s fingerprints and helps create a form of digital identification in areas with no electricity or internet. Etana uses advanced AI/ML to generate math-based signatures to upload the fingerprint to a public server, allowing women to access all the services they couldn’t previously.
Courtesy of Elizabeth Nyamwange
What has been your favorite part of this project?
The people that I’ve met. I have made so many friends and have been supported by people I wouldn't have dreamed of meeting. It has been so inspiring and motivating.
What stage are you at now with Etana?
We have finished the first round of programming, and I just returned from Kenya on a research trip. We are working to understand barriers for access for these women and help adjust the prototype accordingly.
Courtesy of Elizabeth Nyamwange
In one of the many articles about you, you said you created Etana “for women and girls who remind you of yourself: dreamers met with cultural barriers constantly trying to reduce them to nothing.” Can you explain how this is personal for you?
I believe that I am so fortunate to be in the US, at a school [like the Illinois Math and Science Academy] that has opportunities most people can only dream of. I have also seen firsthand how COVID-19 impacted girls around the world from visits to Kenya. So many people had stopped going to school and were forced to give up on their dreams. I think this project is not only helpful in its technical efforts but in setting an example for girls on learning how to think outside the box.
Absolutely true. Do you think that part of Etana’s success is because it is so personal?
What kept me motivated is my passionate interest in using technology to help and support the women the world seems to be leaving behind. I am constantly brainstorming projects that revolve around education and looking into how we can use technology to provide educational resources and opportunities for girls in hard-to-reach areas.
If anything, this project truly taught me persistence. Not that I have ever been the type of person to leave a project half-done, but this truly did test me. I’ve never had so many ups and downs. I feel as though I truly learned how to adapt, think outside of the box, and appreciate the little things. I think because I was so passionate about what I was building, the idea of quitting was never an option.
What else do you like to do with your time? Any other hobbies? Any other passions? Do you have a sense of what you’re doing next?
I really enjoy watching sports (I am a HUGE basketball fan). I also really enjoy nature, hiking, and visiting national parks. I think they are fun activities to do with my friends, and they’re relaxing too.
I am going to college next year and hoping to major in computer science. I’m working on a few smaller projects, and want to have a tech startup in the near future.
Okay: your biggest piece of advice for young women who want to pursue STEM careers?
STRUGGLE THROUGH IT. There are so many times I wanted to give up, but was driven by the importance of making space for myself in these areas. I often was the only woman in the room and always the only black woman. Because of this, I had to CONSTANTLY remind myself that I was working for more than just me, that I was working for all the younger girls who would then be able to look up to me.
Finally, is there any way people can help with your project? We always like to help spread the word if we can!
Just keep updated! I try to update my websites pretty frequently, and all updates and fundraisers will always be listed there.These are the two places to find me and my work: www.womenasi.org and www.etana.us.
Thank you so much for sharing your time and incredibly inspiring ideas with us, Liz. We will definitely keep updated on all of the amazing things you’re doing. Good luck with all of it!