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The First Black Woman To Reach the North Pole

This article is written by a student writer from the Her Campus at Hampton U chapter.

Every year during Black History Month, I always see social media posts about famous civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks. I remember being in high school and learning about Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass almost every year. While they are prominent figures in Black History, I’m interested in learning about someone who isn’t spoken about much. So let’s talk about the wonderful, brave and adventurous Ms. Barbara Hillary.

Barbara Hillary was born on June 12, 1931 in New York City. Her father died early in her childhood, and she was raised by her mother Viola Jones Hillary in Harlem, New York. Growing up in poverty, her mother made immense efforts to take care of her family like cleaning houses day and night. Barbara Hillary spent a lot of her time reading to further her education, and her mother used to tell her that “there was no such thing as mental poverty in our home.” She attended the New School in New York and studied Gerontology, earning a Bachelor of Arts and Masters degree. She became a nurse for 55 years and later retired.

Hillary’s yearn for traveling was visceral to her existence even in older age, After retiring from nursing, she set out for Canada to go sledding and capturing photos of polar bears. In 1998, she was diagnosed with lung cancer which was her second cancer diagnosis, after finding out she had breast cancer in her early twenties. An adventurous woman, Hillary discovered that no African American woman has traveled to both the North and South Poles and declared that she would be the first. Deciding that this was happening, she started fundraising for the trip. She’s never been skiing before, so she took lessons and worked out. It cost about $20,000 for the expedition, and Hillary raised about $26,000 by writing letters to sponsors and accepting donations. Barbara Hillary became the first Black woman to reach the North Pole at the age of 75 on April 23, 2007, and became the first Black woman to stand on the South Pole five years later on January 6 2011.

Hillary is the recipient of many awards and honors including The Woman of Courage Award from the National Organization for Women. She was no longer just an adventurer, she was now an activist. Known as a pillar in her community, she founded the Arverne Action Association, Inc. The Arverne Action  Association, Inc. is a neighborhood development group located in Queens, New York, whose purpose was to enhance and improve life in the city. The Peninsula Magazine, a non-profit magazine in Queens, was founded by Hillary and she served as the Editor-in-Chief of the publication. It also makes history as being the very first of its kind ever in the city. 

Barbara Hillary passed away on November 23, 2019 at the tender age of 88. She planned on still traveling, even as her health was declining. A year before her death, she traveled to Mongolia and spoke with individuals in nomadic groups whose everyday lives were in danger because of climate change. Ms. Barbara Hillary lived a tremendous life as a nurse, publisher, Arctic explorer, inspirational speaker and adventurer. Being a young girl from New York City, Ms. Hillary’s story inspires me. She is the definition of resilience and grit. From her impoverished childhood to her cancer diagnoses, she never allowed anything to keep her from her dreams. She received the posthumous honor of being inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 2020. She is an eminent part of Black History and should be recognized for her entire life not just during Black History Month but all the time.

Aliyah McClammy

Hampton U '24

Hey everyone! My name is Aliyah McClammy. I am a junior attending Hampton University majoring in strategic communications with a minor in film studies. I am from Brooklyn, New York and my favorite things to do are reading, writing, watching movies, and shopping!