Barbara Hillary: The first black woman to reach the North and South Poles dies at 88

November 27, 2019 at 04:30 pm | Faces of Black Excellence

Mohammed Awal

Mohammed Awal

November 27, 2019 at 04:30 pm | Faces of Black Excellence

Photo credit: Richard Drew/Associated Press

It was in her 70s that she made history. Barbara Hillary defied old age and took to adventure becoming the first black woman to officially make it to the North and South Poles.

Hillary reached the North Pole at the age of 75 in 2007 and the South Pole at the age of 79, in 2011, The New York Times reported.

At the age of 88, Hillary died on Saturday in a hospital in Far Rockaway, Queens. Her death was announced on her website and a post on her Twitter account said her health had been diminishing in recent months. 

Hillary had breast cancer in her 20s and lung cancer in her 60s. When she retired from a nursing career she took on the challenge of making it to the Poles after learning no black woman was on record as having done so, the Associated Press reported. 

She had no funding and no organization behind her and it is believed she had lost 25 percent of her breathing capacity from surgery for her lung cancer.

According to the Times, it was not until 1986 that any woman had reached the top of the world, with Ann Bancroft, a physical education teacher, and explorer from Minnesota, becoming the first. 

The first black man there was Matthew Henson, who, along with Robert E. Peary, set foot on the North Pole in 1909, the paper reported.

Ms. Hillary on her Mongolia expedition this year with a guide, right, who goes by the name Tudevee, and Akelik, who hunts with eagles.
Hillary on her Mongolia expedition this year with a guide, right, who goes by the name Tudevee, and Akelik, who hunts with eagles.Credit…Zachary Murray/Big Mongolia Travel

Hillary’s adventures would require her to ski, something she had never done before. “It wasn’t a popular sport in Harlem,” where she had grown up, she told The Seattle Times in 2007.

Hillary took cross-country skiing lessons and hired a personal trainer, eating more vegetables, increased vitamin intake, as well as, hit the gym. And she raised the funds for the expedition mostly through donations for equipment and transportation, according to one report.

With a limited route to reach the North Pole, located in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, where the waters are almost permanently covered with shifting sea ice, Hillary signed on for the expedition with Eagles Cry Adventures, an outfitter, and was deposited by helicopter at a Norwegian base camp about 30 miles from the North Pole.

On April 23, 2007, another helicopter took her to a point on the ice that was “within skiing distance of the North Pole,” using a guide she told The New Yorker magazine later that year.

“As the sunlight glinted off the ice, distorting her vision, Hillary struggled beneath a load of gear and pressed on. In her euphoria at reaching the Pole, she forgot the cold and removed her gloves, causing her fingers to become frostbitten,” The Seattle Times reported:

“I have never experienced such sheer joy and excitement. I was screaming, jumping up and down, for the first few minutes,” Hillary told The New Yorker.

That expedition to the North Pole would whet her appetite for more and four years later, on Jan. 6, 2011, she stood at the South Pole.

“If I had frozen to death down there, wouldn’t it be sad if I’d gone to hell without getting what I want?” she told The New York Times in 2011,

Hillary was born on June 12, 1931, in Manhattan. Her father died when she was two.

Her mother, Viola Jones Hillary, had migrated to New York in the 1930s from South Carolina to give Barbara and her sister, Dorothy, the chance for a good education. Earning her living by cleaning houses, she raised her daughters by herself in Harlem.

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