Matthew Alexander Henson (1866-1955) was an American explorer and long-time companion to Robert Peary; amongst various expeditions, their most famous was a 1909 expedition which claimed to be the first to reach the Geographic North Pole. He was still a child when his parents died, and at the age of twelve he went to sea as a cabin boy on a merchant ship. He sailed around the world for the next several years, educating himself and becoming a skilled navigator. A black American and an employee of Peary's (who was notoriously difficult with his charges), Henson did not achieve contemporary recognition in America where racist views were still common. Although Admiral Peary received many honors, Henson was largely ignored and spent most of the next thirty years working as a clerk in a federal customs house in New York. But in 1944 Congress awarded him a duplicate of the silver medal given to Peary. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower both honored him before he died in 1955. In 1912 Henson wrote the book A Negro Explorer at the North Pole about his arctic exploration.
Robert E. Peary (1865-1920), a rear admiral for the U.S. Navy, became an Arctic explorer for the express purpose of being the first man to the reach North Pole.
Booker T. Washington (1856-1915) was born a slave. He graduated from what is today Hampton University in 1875, and subsequently taught there. In 1881 he founded the forerunner of Tuskegee University. He made himself and his school two of the most well-known institutions in twentieth-century black America. He earned world-renowned recognition as an educator, social theorist, and spokesperson for African Americans.