New York City U.S. Custom House Employee: Matthew Henson

Today’s post comes from Dorothy Dougherty, Programs Director at the National Archives at New York City.

Matthew Henson, the famous African American explorer, worked nearly 20 years with Admiral Robert Peary exploring the Arctic. On April 6, 1909, Henson and Peary successfully made it to the North Pole, where Henson is credited with placing the U.S. Flag.

The National Archives contains several documents about the polar explorations, including the Peary Collection, which includes many Henson-related letters and documents. 

But what happened to Matthew Henson after his adventures north?

After Henson returned to New York in 1909, he was honored by the Colored Citizens of New York. His book, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole, was published in 1912. Unfortunately, though, as an African American at the turn of the century, Henson wasn’t given much recognition for his polar achievements. Once home, Henson took a job parking cars, the only work he could find.

Henson was in his late forties when he finally attained a job with the federal government. On February 26, 1913, President Taft appointed him to “any suitable position” within the classified clerk office at the U.S. Custom House at One Bowling Green, New York City. The U.S. Custom House was renamed the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House in the early 1990s and is where the National Archives at New York is currently located.

The appointment’s wording included Peary’s recommendation about Henson: “No man could have been more fortunate than I in having two such brave, loyal comrades x x x x x.  And no man could have been more unfortunate than I that I was unable to reward their courage and loyalty.”

According to the documents at the National Archives at New York City, Henson worked at the Custom House for the next 23 years until he retired in 1939. While many outside accounts of his life state he worked as a clerk, a closer look at the documents tell us he started his U.S. Custom House career as a messenger with an annual salary of $960.

The Customs Service recorded employment histories of each employee, and fortunately for us, Henson’s employment history is noted on page 36. (The Customs Bureau ended the practice of noting employees in 1919.)    

While we don’t have the details of Henson’s daily work, we can trace his career, title, and salary on employee registers over the years. The register dated March 26, 1918, lists him as Messenger, Class E, working in the “C.R” for a $1,000 annual salary. The code “C.R.” stands for the correspondence room at the chief clerk’s office. It should be noted his salary is similar to others working the same title in that office.

By 1919, Henson was then listed on a similar register as a messenger in the Correspondence Division earning $1,200 a year.

Henson’s salary increases as the years go on. In 1920, it is $1,300, then up to $1,400 in June 1924 but his work is still noted as a messenger. 

Consulting other Federal records we can confirm Henson’s messenger status in the 1920 U.S. Federal Census for New York, NY.

So when did Henson actually become a clerk?

Looking at the Record of Appointments and Promotions, we see Henson listed again as a messenger, making $1,700. However, by 1927, the register notes he was promoted to the position of chief clerk, with a salary increase to $2,000 a year.

The next promotion was noted on January 1931 to a salary of $2,100. The register also indicates that his position was officially abolished as of November 2, 1936, thus resulting in his retirement along with a pension for his 23-year service, when Henson was 70 years old.

Many years into retirement, Henson was invited to the White House to meet with President Eisenhower. Henson, along with his wife and members of the National Newspaper Publishers Association, met the President for an 11:15 a.m. meeting at the White House on April 6, 1954. Henson was 87 years old at that time.

Matthew A. Henson died in 1955 and was buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in New York City. After his death, he gradually received the accolades for his early polar exploration and continued to be commemorated posthumously. By 1987, there was a campaign to have Henson, a national hero, reburied at Arlington National Cemetery “a resting place commensurate with his patriotic contributions to our nation,” as outlined in a letter sent to President Ronald Reagan.

At the time of the request, Arlington Cemetery had eligibility criteria on burials in order to “reduce the number of interments and preserve the life of the cemetery.” After several followup letters, President Reagan approved an exception for Henson. However, the U.S. Government wouldn’t cover the cost of reinterment, and Henson’s next of kin were required to pay for the reburial. Henson was finally buried at Arlington on April 6, 1988, near the burial site of Admiral Peary, as co-discoverer of the North Pole.

The National Archives has several records that connect the public with Henson’s life. Our New York office at the Alexander Hamilton U.S. Custom House is located in the third-floor space where Henson once worked. Henson played a crucial role in the exploration and discovery of the North Pole, and he continued to serve his country working for the U.S. Customs Service. He will not be forgotten.

A special thanks to National Archives staff who provided guidance on the records used in this blog post, including National Archives at New York staff Kevin Reilly, archives technician; Angela Tudico, archives specialist; and Sara Davis, education specialist. The Dwight D. Eisenhower Presidential Library and Museum staff include Mary Burtzloff, audiovisual archivist; and Tim Rives, supervisory archivist. The Harry S. Truman Library and Museum staff include Sam Rushay, supervisory archivist. The Ronald Reagan Presidential Library and Museum staff include Ira Pemstein, supervisory archivist; and Jennifer Newby, archivist. Finally, thanks to National Archives Museum staff member Corinne Porter, curator.

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