Monday, February 28, 2022

Matthew Henson—The Black Face in the Frozen White North

                    Matthew Henson, Polar explorer in his warm Inuit furs in1910.

Matthew Henson at age 21 in 1887 was hired by U.S. Navy Civil Engineer Second Lieutenant Robert E. Peary as a personal valet.  But from the beginning the young Black man was much more than a servant who laid out his master’s clothes in the morning and polished his shoes.  He quickly became an all-around aide and eventually a virtual partner in polar explorations that spanned 23 years. 

Henson was born on August 8, 1866 on his parents farm east of the Potomac River in Charles County, Maryland.  They had been free people of color before the Civil War. The family were victims of attacks by the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups, who terrorized freedmen and former free people of color after the war.  In 1867 To escape from racial violence in southern Maryland, the Henson family sold the farm and moved to Georgetown, then still an independent town adjacent to the national capitol.

After his father’s early death, he was sent to Washington, D.C. to live with an uncle and had a few years of education a Black public school.  At the age of ten the boy, previously at best an indifferent scholar attended a speech by Frederick Douglass who urges Black youth to vigorously pursue educational opportunities and battle against racial prejudice.

But two years later a keen sense of adventure led him to quit school and sign on as a cabin boy on the merchant ship Katie Hines out of Baltimore and sailed to ports in China, Japan, Africa, and the Russian Arctic seas.  The ship’s Captain Child was impressed by the quick witted lad and not only helped him polish his reading and writing skills but taught him a great deal about sailing and the basics of navigation.

After returning to Washington Henson got more schooling and worked a variety of jobs.  Clerking at the clothing store and outfitters B.H. Stinemetz & Sons was an unusual plum for a young Black.  When Lt. Peary stopped by the store to get a suitable pith helmet for his first trip to Nicaragua to supervise the survey of a canal route he hired the salesman and took him on the trip.  On that tip Peary was much impressed by Henson’s seamanship and his heartiness in enduring the steaming tropical heat of Central America and the diseases that felled many expedition members.

Peary had already made one trip to the Arctic—an 1885 attempt to survey Greenland by dog sled to determine if it was an island or a part of a larger land mass.  Harsh conditions had forced that expedition to turn back but Peary learned much about northern survival skills. He was already thinking about more polar exploration and shared his dreams with Henson who eagerly agreed to accompany him.  While they prepared, Peary taught his servant much of what he learned and practiced his critical skills as a navigator.

In 1891 Henson accompanied Peary back to Greenland on board the seal hunting ship S.S. Kite on a trip backed by the American Geographic Society, Philadelphia Academy of Natural Sciences, and the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences.  In July sailing in icy waters the ship’s iron tiller suddenly spun around and broke the keel and Peary’s leg.  The expedition established a camp at Red Cliff, at the mouth of MacCormick Fjord at the northwest end of Inglefield Gulf.

During Peary’s six month recovery Henson got to know the local Inuit people and mastered their language.  They called him Mahri-Pahluk and remembered him as the only non-Inuit who became skilled in driving the dog sleds and in training dog teams in the Inuit way.  After Peary recovered and pushed north he proved he was a skilled craftsman, often coming up with solutions for what the team needed in the harsh Arctic conditions and built igloos out of snow instead of using heavy tents for shelter as they traveled. His and Peary’s teams covered thousands of miles in dog sleds and reached the point farthest North of any Arctic expedition yet and established that Greenland was indeed an island.

Henson on board the Peary polar expedition's ship Roosevelt  in 1908 with a sled.  He was an expert dog team driver.

Henson accompanied Peary on six more trips north and was acknowledged at his First Man and de-facto second in command before the 1908-09 drive to be the first to the North Pole.  It was the largest expedition yet and was underwritten by the National Geographic Society and Explorers Club.  Peary used his system of setting up cached supplies along the way. When he and Henson boarded his ship Roosevelt, leaving Greenland on August 18, 1909, they were accompanied by 22 Inuit men, 17 Inuit women, 10 children, 246 dogs, 70 tons (64 metric tons) of whale meat from Labrador, the meat and blubber of 50 walruses, hunting equipment, and tons of coal. In February, Henson and Peary departed their anchored ship at Ellesmere Island’s Cape Sheridan, with the Inuit men and 130 dogs working to lay a trail and supplies along the route to the Pole.

Peary selected Henson and four Inuit as part of the team of six men who would make the final run to the Pole. Before the goal was reached, Peary could no longer continue on foot and rode in a dog sled. He sent Henson ahead as a scout.

In a newspaper interview, Henson later said:

I was in the lead that had overshot the mark a couple of miles. We went back then and I could see that my footprints were the first at the spot.

Matthew Henson, center, and four of his Inuit companions were photographed in front of the presumed North geographic polt marked by a flag of the Explorer's Club.

Henson and his Inuit companions were photographed at the supposed pole.  Subsequent investigation citing navigational errors have cast doubt on the claim of being first to the Pole.  In fact, they were several miles short of that goal.  But when their claim was publicized, Peary was proclaimed a hero and he in turn publicly recognized Henson in his reports to his sponsors.

In 1912 Henson published a memoir of his arctic explorations, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole. In this, he describes himself as a “general assistant, skilled craftsperson, interpreter, and laborer.” He later collaborated with author Bradley Robinson on his 1947 biography, Dark Companion, which told more about his life.

At first although Peary received many honors Henson’s contributions were largely ignored except within 1909 the Black community. Henson spent most of the next 30 years working on staff in the U.S. Customs House in New York, a political appointment by admirer Theodore Roosevelt.

Peary and Henson were co-honored with a Unites States Postal Service stamp on the centennial of their dash to the North Pole.

He later gained renewed attention. In 1937 Henson was admitted as a member to the prestigious Explorers Club in New York City. In 1944 Congress awarded him and five other Peary aides duplicates of the Peary Polar Expedition Medal, a silver medal given to Peary.  Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both honored Henson before he died in 1955.

Henson and his wife Lucy with President Dwight Eisenhower in 1954, a year before his death.

Henson was officially married twice.  He married Eva Flint in 1891, but their marriage did not survive their long periods of separation and they divorced in 1897.  He married Lucy Ross in New York City on September 7, 1907.  That marriage endured the strains of separation until Henson settled into his duties as a Customs official.  They had no children.

But Henson also had an Inuit family in the far North.  His native wife Akatingwah gave him his only child, a son named Anauakaq, born in 1906.  Anauakaq’s children are Henson's only descendants.  After 1909, Henson never saw Akatingwah or his son again but remained in contact through mutual acquaintances and visitors to their village.

In 1986 Anauakaq and an Inuit son of Peary were discovered and brought to Washington as octogenarians where they met American relatives from both families and visited their fathers’ graves.  Anauakaq died a year later.  He and his wife Aviaq had five sons and a daughter, who have children of their own. While some still reside in Greenland, others have moved to Sweden or the United States.

Henson's Inuit descendants in Greenland in 1999.

Actress Taraji P. Henson best known for starring in the cable series Empire and as African-American mathematician Katherine Johnson in Hidden Figures is a decedent of Matthew’s Maryland family of origin.  Joseph Henson born in 1850 was either Matthew’s older brother or his cousin.  That would make her Matthew’s great-great niece or cousin.  She purchased the ancestral Maryland farm and still owns about 25 acres of it.

Henson died on March 9, 1955 in the Bronx.  When he was reinterred in 1986 with his wife Lucy at Arlington National Cemetery members of his Inuit family were in attendance.  

Sunday, February 27, 2022

For Trayvon Ten Years Later With Murfin Verse

Ten years ago this morning south Floridians woke to a news story about an unarmed Black youth who was shot and killed by someone claiming to be involved in a neighborhood watch in Sanford, Florida the night before.  The story could easily have ended there.  Many similar tales from around the country barely made that level of notice.

But in the next few days evidence arose that Trayvon Martin might have been stalked and virtually executed by wannabe hero George Zimmerman.  Despite this local police and prosecutors accepted Zimmerman’s claims to have acted in self-defense.  Although it was never officially invoked, newspaper articles cited Florida’s recently enacted and controversial Stand Your Ground Law as justification for the shooting.  Zimmerman was released without charge and his weapon returned to him.

Within days local protests in support of appeals by Martin’s parents began spreading across the country, particularly in light of the refusal of local authorities to act.  It became the number one story in the nation that March. Eventually eliciting an emotional statement by President Barack Obama that added fuel to what became a raging, polarizing public debate.

The Trayvon Martin case became a sort of litmus test for racial attitudes in the supposed post-Civil Rights Obama era.  The result of that test was not pretty.  Many Whites simply assumed that Martin must have been guilty of something and deserved to have been shot for supposedly attacking a physically larger man stalking him through a neighborhood armed with a visible gun.  Every aspect of his short life was examined and picked apart.  He was denounced as a thug for wearing a hoody, being suspended for minor rule infractions in school, and goofing around posing gangsta style in cell phone selfie video.  He was accused of child molestation for supposedly having sex with a high school sweetheart.  Both of his parents, estranged from each other, were vilified as was anyone who came to his defense.

Trayvon became the object of an intense and well orchestrated smear campaign.  Images and memes like this were shared by many white Americans on social media as Black protests grew.  

Zimmerman, on the other hand, was proclaimed a hero, particularly by the NRA and gun rights zealots.  Nothing could dissuade them from this view, not increasing evidence of his mental instability, charges of domestic battery and intimidation, and further run-ins with the law in which a pistol was brandished.  It was Zimmerman, in their view, who was the target of persecution and the real victim of the case.

Among the Black community and for many White liberals Trayvon became the symbol a callous disregard for Black lives and the refusal of authorities to hold assailants of Blacks to accountability.  Posting pictures in a hoody online while holding a card reading “I am Trayvon” swept Facebook, Twitter, and Tumbler.  Medical school students, clergy, and even members of Congress posed for group shots.  Mass marches were held across the country, some involving arrests and outbreaks of minor violence.

In the process of the rising movement Trayvon was painted as a totally innocent good kid with a funny smile, a football player, and friend who reached out to an ostracized Haitian girl at school.  To be the perfect victim, he had to be the perfect kid.  Many Black parents recognized their own sons and were not shocked by minor conflicts with authority or reflecting the popular culture.  But White liberals need the perfect, sweet boy often because they were themselves afraid of young Black males in hoodies.

The Trayvon Martin case has been compared to that of Emmett Till, the 12 year old Chicago boy, who was tortured and lynched on a visit to Alabama relatives for allegedly whistling at a white woman outside a country grocery store.  The insistence of Till’s mother on displaying her son’s brutalized, barely recognizable body in a glass-topped casket at his funeral helped galvanize a renewed anti-lynching movement and the Civil Rights movement in general.  In 2017 the House of Representatives voted to pass the Emmett Till Anti-Lynching Act 65 years after the boy’s brutal murder and 128 years after Ida B. Wells began her anti-lynching crusade during the era of Jim Crow terror.

Dr. Martin Luther King speaking at the funeral of Jimmy Lee Jackson in 1965.

But Trayvon’s case could also be compared to the death of Jimmie Lee Jackson in 1965.  Jackson was a 27 year old Baptist deacon and rank and file voting rights activist who was shot by Alabama State Troopers and beaten while trying to defend his 84 year old grandfather and mother from a beating following the dispersal of a night march in Marion.  After suffering and lingering from his wounds for several days, Jackson died on February 26—not so ironically the same date as Trayvon.  The Marion march was part of the voting rights campaign centered in near-by Selma.  It was his death that inspired the Selma to Montgomery March.

Despite of its mobilizing impact on the Black community, the national media scarcely paid any attention to Jackson’s death.  It was not until weeks later when a white minister, Unitarian Universalist James Reeb, was beaten to death by Klansmen after responding to a national call to action in response to the bloody attack on the first attempted Selma to Montgomery March, that the focus of the nation swung to Selma.  It was Reeb’s death, and the shotgun murder of Viola Liuzzo, a white mother from Detroit and UU laywoman, after the successful March and not the unmentioned Jackson, which Lyndon Johnson used as leverage to finally ram the Voting Rights Act through Congress.

Trayvon as a symbol of a movement--a Los Angeles protest march.

The Trayvon Martin case likewise sparked a growing, and lasting movement.  Although it did not involve a police killing, it exposed the raw double standard of the supposed American justice system.  In the years since the boy’s death multiple cases, a heartbreaking parade of them really, have reinforced the growing rage in the Black community.  Many of those have involved police killings.  In a very real sense, the Black Lives Matter owes its existence to what started with the Trayvon Martin protests.

Eventually with national heat on them, Florida official reluctantly indicted Zimmerman and prosecuted him with somewhat less than the customary zeal.  To the disappointment of many but the surprise of few, Zimmerman was acquitted on July 14, 2013.  A new wave of protests roiled the nation in its wake.

George Zimmerman finally on trial, the real victim in the eyes of much of White America.

That night I wrote a poem for Trayvon, which appeared the next day in this blog.  Its appearance was, naturally, not without controversy itself.  But I stand by it.

For Trayvon

After the Verdict

July 14, 2013


In the end they stole you,

            every last one of them,

            the martyr builders

            and the bastards alike.


They poured you out

            like water from

            a swamped boot

            and replaced you

            with the merchandise

            of their own longings,


                                    and projections.

A handy flagstaff from which to hang

                        their ideologies           

                        snapping in the gale

                        that they created.


But you were just a goofy,

            kind of sweet kid

            just trying to get along

            no angel, no thug.


You took the time to make a friend

            of the big girl with the

            funny accent

everyone else mocked,

And you also toked some weed—

what a shock!

            mugged like a rapper

            on your cell phone,    

                        and brushed up

                        a time or two  

                        against John Law.

You played football and video games,

            danced, laughed

            and flashed that little grin.

If truth be known,

            you probably got beyond

            third base with that pretty

            little girl friend.


So what?

            It doesn’t matter now.

            It all ended with a tussle

            and a pop on dark night.


Then you were stretched out

            flat on your back

            surprise frozen on

            your face—

                        an empty sack of meat.


Now you belong to them.

            You have no say.

            Those who loved you,

                        hated your existence

on the planet,

                                    and all of the users.


Maybe better you should have been

            capped on the South Side

            of Chicago on a busy weekend

            where all you would get

            would be a two minute stand-up

            under a streetlamp on Channel 5,

                        a quick shot of your wailing mom,

                                    the posturing of a local preacher.

Then they would put you in the ground

            still owning your own corpse.


—Patrick Murfin

Saturday, February 26, 2022

The Impossible Diplomat— Nobel Peace Prize Winner Ralph Bunche


Special U.N. envoy Ralph Bunche receives his Nobel Prize for brokering a peace between Israel and its neighboring Arab states.

Note—The invasion of Ukraine by Russia—the first mass cross-border war in Europe in nearly 80 years—make one wonder if the impossible diplomat who brokered peace between intractable enemies Israel and its Arab neighbors and other thorny conflicts could somehow have helped head off this one.

On September 22, 1950 the world was surprised when an American diplomat on loan to the United Nations was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  It was not that his achievement was unworthybrokering the thorny negotiations that led to an armistice agreement between Israel and the Arab States ending a bloody war that began when Israel declared its independence—it was because Ralph Bunche was an African-American.

Bunch was born in Detroit, Michigan on August 4, 1904 (some sources place the date a year earlier.)  His father was a barber serving an exclusively white clientele—and thus probably passing himself off as white in his work.  Some of his ancestors had been free since before the American Revolution.  His mother was an accomplished amateur musician.  Also in the household was his maternal grandmother, “Nana” Johnson who had been born into slavery but was also capable of “passing.”  Despite their fair completions the family strongly identified as Black and lived in that community.

Both parents were in fragile health and the whole family relocated to Albuquerque, New Mexico in hopes of improvement.  Both however soon succumbed—probably to tuberculosis.  Bunche, his two sisters, and his grandmother moved to Los Angeles.

                                       Bunche as a UCLA graduate.

To help support the family Ralph sold newspapers and held numerous side jobs, including laying carpets, and being a house boy to a film actor while he attended Jefferson High School.  Despite the time lost to work, he excelled as both a student and an athlete.  He was valedictorian of his graduating class and earned athletic scholarships to the University of California at Los Angeles (UCLA.) While the scholarships paid his school expenses, he earned his personal expenses by working as a janitor.  He competed as a varsity basketball player on league championship teams while also competing in debate and writing for the campus newspaper.  In 1927 Bunche graduated summa cum laude and valedictorian with a major in international relations.

His accomplishment was a matter of great pride in his South Los Angeles neighborhood.  The community raised $1000 by subscription to supplement a scholarship so that Bunche could continue his education at Harvard.  He completed his Masters in political science in just a year.  He began teaching at Howard University, the nation’s most prestigious Black institution in the fall of 1928.  For the next six years he alternated terms at Howard and back at Harvard where he pursued his Doctorate.  He was named Chair of Howard’s Department of Political Science, a title he held until 1950 despite numerous absences to conduct research or in war time or diplomatic service.

He received many honors and distinctions as a scholar.  The Rosenwald Fellowship in 1932 and 1933 enabled him to conduct research in Africa for a dissertation comparing French rule in Togoland and Dahomey.  The resulting paper won the Toppan Prize for outstanding original research in the social sciences in 1934.  A fellowship from the Social Science Research Council from 1936-37 enabled Bunche to do postdoctoral research at Northwestern University, the London School of Economics, and the University of Cape Town in South Africa.

                        Bunche as a young scholar.

As he was becoming the acknowledged leading academic on African affairs and European Colonialism, he began to forcefully expound his sometimes controversial views.  His influential 1936 pamphlet A World View of Race argued, “…class will some day supplant race in world affairs. Race war will then be merely a side-show to the gigantic class war which will be waged in the big tent we call the world.”  From 1936-40 Bunche was contributing editor to a leftist academic journal, Science and Society: A Marxian Quarterly.

It was inevitable that with his credentials and expertise that Bunche would be called upon for service during World War II.  He began as a senior analyst on colonial affairs at the Office of Strategic Services (OSS.)  There his knowledge of French possessions helped provide information that kept most of the sub-Saharan colonies in Free French hands and available as support for eventual action in North Africa.  He also provided insight on Nazi attempts to turn South African Boers against the British Empire.

In 1943 Bunche moved to the State Department where he served under Alger Hiss as Associate Chief of the Division of Dependent Area Affairs.  There he worked not only on African issues but as a leader of the Institute of Pacific Relations and on the Anglo-American Caribbean Commission. 

Bunche was active in preliminary planning for the Dumbarton Oaks Conversations held in Washington D.C. in 1944 and as an adviser to the U.S. Delegation for the Charter Conference of the United Nations in 1945. He participated in the drafting of the Charter.  He worked closely with Eleanor Roosevelt in the creation and adoption of the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights.

Given his role in the birth of the institution, it came as no surprise when UN Secretary-General Trygve Lie asked to “borrow” Bunche from the State Department in 1946.  He was placed in charge of the Department of Trusteeship to oversee the numerous dependent areas that were placed under UN Trusteeship following the war.  It was delicate work, balancing the demands of former colonial masters and the growing anti-colonial nationalism of countries straining at the transition process to self-government.

Bunche was Count Folke Bernadotte's top aid as UN mediator until the Swede was assassinator in  Jerusalem and inherited the job.

In June, 1947 Bunche was assigned to work on the seemingly intractable problem of confrontation between Jews and Arabs in Palestine.  He soon moved from assistant to the UN Special Committee on Palestine to Principal Secretary of the UN Palestine Commission, which was charged with carrying out the partition approved by the UN General Assembly. When the original partition plan was dropped amid intense fighting between Arabs and Israelis in early 1948 the UN appointed Swedish Count Folke Bernadotte as mediator for the conflict with Bunche as his chief aide. Count Bernadotte was assassinated in Jerusalem four months later on September 17 by the Zionist group Lehi. And Bunche was catapulted to chief mediator on Palestine. It was, theoretically a temporary appointment.

The peace negotiations were tough, delicate, shirtsleeve work.  Bunche with a senior Israeli in his spartan headquarters on Rhodes. 

For eleven months Bunche conducted ceaseless negotiations from his headquarters on the island of Rhodes.   Israeli negotiator Moshe Dayan later reported on Bunche’s unorthodox style.  He often conducted one-on-one talks with the parties over supposedly casual games of billiards.  He generally kept the parties apart as much as possible since their mere presence with each other in the same room inflamed passions and tended to harden positions.  He shuffled the parties in an out getting little concessions here and there from both parties until he could finally bring them together to sign the 1949 Armistice Agreements made successively between February and July between Israel and its neighbors, Egypt, Lebanon, Jordon, and Syria.  No party got what they really wanted, but all parties got what they could live with—at least for a while.

His accomplishments made Bunche an instant celebrity.  He was greeted in New York City by a ticker tape parade and his adopted hometown of Los Angeles declared a Ralph Bunche Day. He was awarded the Spingarn Prize by the National Association of Colored People (NAACP) in 1949.  He was awarded 30 honorary degrees over the next three years.  He could not keep up with requests for speeches.  And all of this only intensified with the announcement of the Nobel Prize.

Of course, Bunche was not without critics.  His participation in the avowedly Marxist academic publication, his endorsement of National Negro Congress in the ‘30’s, and his close association with accused traitor Alger Hiss did not go unnoticed.  He was somewhat protected by the enormous prestige of the Nobel Prize—and the fact that he was no longer at the State Department. But he was subjected to an investigation by a Loyalty Board into American diplomats working at the United Nations in 1953 and had to personally appear and refute each of 14 spurious charges against him.  Although he had the support of President Dwight Eisenhower, it was a painful and humiliating experience for him.

Bunche with Ralph Abernathy, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., and Coretta Scott King on the March from Selma to Montgomery.

Many also did not appreciate his loud public support for Civil Rights causes.  Academically, he had participated in the groundbreaking research on American race relations by Swedish sociologist Gunnar Myrdal and often spoken out about the absence of scientific evidence for differentiations among the races.  He publicly supported actions by both the NAACP and the Urban League.  He endorsed the campaigns of non-violent civil disobedience of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and participated in the 1963 March on Washington.  Controversy around him probably cost him appointment as Secretary of State or Ambassador to the United Nations under John F. Kennedy.  But he did pave the way for Colin Powel and Condoleezza Rice as Secretary of State and Susan Rice and Linda Thomas-Greenfield as Ambassadors to the United Nations.

The beneficiaries of his greatest achievement have not looked kindly towards him in recent years.  Palestinians and Israelis have hardened even more toward one another after years of ongoing conflict and bloodshed.  Both wield their own oft revised views of history as cudgels.  And both sides now feel that Bunche sold them out and blame the ongoing conflict in not getting everything they demanded in those tense negotiations.  Compromise and compromisers are no longer welcome in either camp.

For his part, the indefatigable Bunche resumed splitting his time numerous educational commitments, lecturing, and undertaking more missions for the United Nations.  From 1955 to 1967, he was Undersecretary for Special Political Affairs and from 1968 to his death was Undersecretary-General.  In 1960 Secretary-General Dag Hammarskj√∂ld appointed him as his special representative to oversee the UN commitments in the war-torn Congo and he served similarly during conflicts in Cyprus, Kashmir, and Yemen.

 The U.S. Postal Service honored Bunche with a 1982 stamp.

Bunche found time to teach at Harvard from 1950-52, serve on the New York City Board of Education from 1958-64, serve as a member of the Harvard Board of Overseers from 1960 to 65, as well as being a board member of the Institute of International Education, and a trustee of Oberlin College, Lincoln University, and New Lincoln School.

Bunche died, evidently of exhaustion, on December 9, 1971 at the age of 68.