oral history

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Sitting on Top of the World

Herbert Frisby and the crew of the B-29 just before the flight that took Frisby directly over the geographic North Pole. Frisby dropped a steel box containing a U.S. flag and a bronze memorial plaque to Matthew Henson, the first African-American to reach the geographic North Pole. The geographic North Pole is the northernmost point of the earth, and is the direction of true north. The North magnetic pole is the point where the earth’s magnetic field points vertically downward and is where traditional magnetic compasses point towards. The magnetic pole is located some 200 miles south of the geographic North Pole and is constantly moving.

Herbert Frisby and the crew of the B-29 just before the flight that took Frisby directly over the North Pole, August 12, 1956, MdHS, PAM 11,409. Frisby dropped a steel box over the exact location of the geographic North Pole, which contained a U.S. flag and a bronze memorial plaque to Matthew Henson, the first African-American to reach the North Pole.

When one thinks of arctic exploration, the state of Maryland does not immediately come to mind. But Maryland’s connection to the history of polar exploration is more than tenuous, as two of its native sons occupy prominent places on the list of travelers to the northernmost point of the earth. When Baltimorean Herbert Frisby flew over the geographic North Pole aboard a U.S. Air Force B-29 on August 12, 1956, he became the second African-American to reach the point where all longitude lines converge and every direction is south.** Frisby was following in the trail blazed by another Marylander, Matthew Henson, who forty seven years earlier, became recognized as the first African-American to set foot on the North Pole as a member of Admiral Robert Peary’s expedition, credited with reaching the pole on April 6, 1909. An arctic explorer in his own right, Frisby gained greater fame in his quest to see his fellow Marylander recognized as co-discoverer of the North Pole alongside Robert Peary.

Herbert Frisby was born on Lee Street in southwest Baltimore, near what is today Camden Yards. Details of his early life are murky—Frisby was somewhat cagey about certain details of his life, particularly his age. According to census records he was born in 1888, but in published interviews Frisby would often avoid answering direct questions about how old he was. In a 1977 Baltimore Evening Sun article he would say only that he was in his 80s. It is also unclear when Frisby first became aware of Matthew Henson. In what is most surely an apocryphal story, Frisby claimed to have first heard of the story of Henson’s voyage to the North Pole when he was in the sixth grade. In the audio excerpt below taken from an interview conducted in 1971, Frisby discusses his recollections of the event that altered the course of his life.

By all indications, Frisby was a student at Howard University at the time of the Peary expedition in 1909, having graduated from Baltimore’s Colored High and Training School (renamed Douglass high school in 1923) in 1908. He worked his way through college playing the piano and taking various odd jobs. Upon graduating in 1912, he took a teaching post at an elementary school in Baltimore, and for the next 46 years was employed in various positions in Baltimore’s public school system. By the time he retired in 1958 as head of the science department at Douglass, a position he had held for over thirty years, he was a highly regarded educator whose commentary on various subjects could often be found in the pages of Baltimore’s Afro-American newspaper.

It was perhaps in his role as a science teacher that Frisby first became fascinated with the story of Matthew Henson and decided to follow in his footsteps. During World War II he received his first opportunity when he became a war correspondent in Alaska for the Afro-American. Frisby provided readers of the newspaper with accounts of his encounters with Eskimos and his travels through Alaska and the Aleutian Islands.

Just prior to his service as a correspondent, Frisby got a chance to meet his idol. According to Frisby he spent five years traveling from his home in Baltimore in search of Henson’s birthplace, a small cabin in the tiny village of Nanemejoy on the southwestern tip of Charles County. He eventually located it, and taking a piece of wood from the cabin, he travelled to New York in search of Henson, beginning a friendship that would last until Henson’s death in 1955.

Following his hero’s death, Frisby began a one man crusade to see Henson recognized as co-discoverer of the North Pole alongside Robert Peary. There had been many supporters to Henson’s claim, including the Afro-American, that he arrived at the Pole before the exhausted Peary. But Peary, as leader of the expedition, received credit for arriving first. Henson’s lack of recognition was also due in no small part to the color of his skin, and for much of the first half of the twentieth century he was largely ignored. Frisby took it upon himself to change this.

Image of the Matthew Henson Memorial Plaque located in the Maryland State House, Annapolis, MdHS, PAM 11,409.

Image of the Matthew Henson Memorial Plaque located in the Maryland State House, Annapolis, MdHS, PAM 11,409.

In 1955, Frisby established the Matthew Henson Memorial Project dedicated to commemorating Henson’s life and accomplishments. Four years later, Governor J. Millard Tawes established April 6 as Matthew Henson Day in Maryland. In 1962, largely through Frisby’s advocacy, Baltimore City Public School #29, located on North Payson Street, was renamed the Matthew Henson Elementary School. Frisby’s ultimate dream was realized on August 8, 1966, when a memorial plaque commemorating Matthew Henson’s arrival at the North Pole was unveiled at the Maryland State House. Bearing the inscription, “Matthew Alexander Henson, Co-Discover of the North Pole with Admiral Robert Edwin Peary, April 6, 1909,” the plaque was the first official endorsement of Matthew Henson and Robert Peary as equal partners in their expedition to the North Pole.

Another goal not realized in Frisby’s lifetime, was the fulfillment of Henson’s request to be buried in Arlington National Cemetery near the grave of Admiral Peary. In 1988, Henson’s remains were exhumed from Woodlawn cemetery in New York City and re-interred near Peary’s grave.

Frisby achieved a good deal of renown in his lifetime for his efforts on behalf of Matthew Henson, but he also received significant attention for his own arctic travels.  By the time Frisby died in 1983, he had made over 26 trips to the polar regions—on one expedition he spent two months sharing an igloo with an Eskimo family. Reports of these excursions were often printed in the pages of the Afro-American. In 1965, a group of women inspired by Frisby’s accomplishments as an educator and explorer, established the Herbert M. Frisby Historical Society. The organization worked to promote the study of African-American history as well as continuing Frisby’s mission of promoting the legacy of Matthew Henson. In 1977 Mayor William Donald Schaeffer designated March 6 as Herbert M. Frisby Day in Baltimore in honor of the explorer’s life and accomplishments.

Herbert M. Frisby, undated, MdHS, PAM 11,409. Frisby is holding a pair of traditional Inuit snow goggles used to prevent snow blindness.

Herbert M. Frisby, undated, MdHS, PAM 11,409. Frisby is holding a pair of traditional Inuit snow goggles used to prevent snow blindness.

The story of Frisby’s quest to gain Matthew Henson recognition as “co-discoverer of the North Pole” is not without irony. Doubts over whether Henson and Robert Peary reached the pole have been widespread since their story was first announced to the world in the pages of the New York Times. Peary and another American explorer, Frederick Cook, emerged from the arctic wilderness in September of 1909 within a week of one another, with Cook claiming to have discovered the North Pole on April 21, 1908, a full year ahead of Peary. Both have had their share of detractors, but for most of the twentieth century Peary’s claim has been generally viewed as the more credible. In 1911, Peary’s claim was even formally endorsed by the U.S. Congress, although they too had strong reservations over the veracity of Peary’s claims.

In recent decades, the doubts have only increased. Another aspirant to the title of “discover of the North Pole,” American aviator Richard Byrd, who claimed to have flown over the pole by plane on May 9, 1926, has largely been discredited as well. Although the debate will probably never be conclusively resolved, today, credit is generally given to Norwegian Roald Amundsen as the being the first to arrive at the North Pole. Amundsen, who was also the first to reach the geographic South Pole in 1911, flew over the pole in a dirigible with his 15 man expedition on May 12, 1926, just a few days after Byrd claimed to.

So in all likelihood, Herbert Frisby, who is probably more remembered for his role as champion of Matthew Henson, rather than for his own arctic exploits, was the first African-American to reach the top of the world. (Damon Talbot)

**The geographic North Pole is the northernmost point of the earth, and is the direction of true north. It is the point where the earth’s axis of rotation meets its surface. The North magnetic pole is the point where the earth’s magnetic field points vertically downward and where traditional magnetic compasses point towards. The magnetic pole is in constant motion and located some 200 miles south of the geographic North Pole.

Sources and further reading:

Herbert Frisby, interview, 1971, MdHS, OH 8015.

“North Pole became this family’s guiding light,” Clarice Scriber, The Baltimore Sun, January 31, 1991.









An American Tragedy

(left) Clarence Mitchell Jr. staging a one man picket line supporting school desegregation in Baltimore, 1954, MdHS, Political Ephemera Collection.
(right) Parren Mitchell protesting segregation of teacher’s training programs at Douglas High School, Paul Henderson, July 1948, MdHS, HEN.00.A2-161 (detail)

Many who devote their lives to bringing about social change can recall a single incident or episode that altered their perceptions and determined their path in life. Civil rights activist Rosa Parks recalls that one of the first ways she realized the difference between “a black world and a white world” was when, as a child, she saw white children riding buses to school while she had to walk. For historian Howard Zinn, featured in a previous post, it was his experiences as a bombardier during World War II that had a profound effect on his later career as a civil rights and anti-war activist, and outspoken critic of U.S. foreign policy. For brothers Clarence Mitchell Jr. (1911-1984) and Parren Mitchell (1922-1907), it was the 1933 lynching of George Armwood in the small town of Princess Anne on Maryland’s Eastern Shore that set the course for their future careers as two of Maryland’s foremost civil rights leaders.

The Eastern Shore was a place apart in the 1930s. Socially and economically it was closer to the south than to the rest of Maryland, particularly in terms of race relations. The roots of a longstanding hostility between blacks and whites in the region were established early in the nation’s history. In 1783 Maryland ended the slave trade across the state, except on the Eastern Shore. Somerset County, where Princess Anne was the county seat, was one of six main centers of slave trading in the state. Isolated both geographically and economically from much of the rest of the state, the economic frustrations of poor whites in the area were often taken out on their African American neighbors. By the 1930s, the increased economic hardships of the Great Depression caused simmering hostilities to boil over, with violent result.

Map of Maryland Showing Somerset County, from Maryland’s Historic Somerset, Board of Education, Somerset County, Princess Anne, MD, 1955.

On December 4, 1931, Matthew Williams, an African American man, shot and killed his white employer in Salisbury and then turned the gun on himself in an unsuccessful suicide attempt. That evening, a mob of more than a thousand dragged Williams from his hospital bed where he lay critically wounded, and hung him up on the courthouse lawn. His body was then dragged to the town’s African American business district, and set on fire.  The Williams murder was the 32nd lynching in Maryland since 1882, and the first since 1911. Less than two years later, another lynching took place that would mirror the Williams murder with frightening similarity in nearby Princess Anne.

Mary Denston, the elderly wife of a Somerset County farmer, was returning to her home in Princess Anne on the morning of October 17, 1933 when she was attacked by an assailant. A manhunt quickly began for the alleged perpetrator, 22-year-old African-American George Armwood. He was soon arrested and charged with felonious assault. By 5:00 pm, an angry mob of local white residents had gathered outside the Salisbury jail where the suspect had been taken. In order to protect Armwood from the increasingly hostile crowd, state police transferred him to Baltimore. But just as quickly he was returned to Somerset county. After assuring Maryland Governor Albert Ritchie that Armwood’s safety would be guaranteed, Somerset county officials transferred Armwood to the jail house in Princess Anne, with tragic consequences.

Sources are conflicting regarding many of the details of the assault on Denston and the subsequent murder of George Armwood, but what is certain is that on the evening of October 18 a mob of a thousand or more people stormed into the Princess Anne jail house and hauled Armwood from his cell down to the street below. Before he was hung from a tree some distance away, Armwood was dragged through the streets, beaten, stabbed, and had one ear hacked off.  Armwood’s lifeless body was then paraded through the town, finally ending up near the town’s courthouse, where the mob doused the corpse with gasoline and set it on fire.

Clarence Mitchell Jr. was a cub reporter for Baltimore’s Afro-American newspaper when he was sent across the bay to report on the lynching. It was his first assignment with the paper. Mitchell, accompanied by photographer Paul Henderson and two other reporters from the newspaper, arrived in Princess Anne mid morning on October 19 after an all night journey from Baltimore. By the time the four newspapermen arrived at the crime scene, Armwood had been dead for some time. Mitchell described the horrific sight in vivid detail for the readers of the October 28 issue of the Afro-American:

“The skin of George Armwood was scorched and blackened while his face had suffered many blows from  sharp and heavy instruments. A cursory glance revealed that one ear was missing and his tongue clenched between his teeth, gave evidence of his great agony before death. There is no adequate description of the mute evidence of gloating on the part of whites who gathered to watch the effect upon our people.”

In a 1977 interview conducted for the McKeldin-Jackson Oral History Project, Mitchell goes into further detail about the lynching:

Interviewer Charles Wagandt can be heard expressing utter disbelief at the idea that the lynching was advertised, but in fact this was the case. Denton Watson, Mitchell’s official biographer, writes that,

“…the advent of the lynching had been well advertised throughout Maryland, neighboring Washington, D.C., and northern Virginia. In Princess Anne members of the fire department sounded the alarm and brought out the fire truck as a signal for the mob to gather. Everyone, including newspaper reporters, had ample time to attend the event. No one was surprised by the news….”

The lynching was celebrated throughout the town. The Afro-American reported that the mob danced around Armwood’s burnt remains singing “John Brown’s Body” and “Give me something to remember you by.” Small crowds gathered throughout the night discussing the murder. One man was quoted as stating,  “It would have cost the state $1,000 to hang the man. It cost us 75 cents.” Pieces from the rope used to hang Armwood were taken as souvenirs.

Mitchell returned to his home on Bloom street in northwest Baltimore a changed man. He had been involved in civil rights activities prior to the lynching—in 1932 he joined the Baltimore branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and was the vice president of the City Wide Young Peoples Forum (established by future wife Juanita Jackson). But being witness to the violence of the lynching, which was outside the scope of his experiences living in Baltimore, galvanized his thinking. This, and his coverage of the trial of the Scottsboro Boys, nine African American boys charged with the rape of two white women in Scottsboro, Alabama, “awakened his interest in the…need for extensive social and judicial reforms in the country.” That evening, as he related the events of the day to his family over dinner he was so upset he couldn’t eat. For Clarence’s younger brother Parren, 11 years old at the time, seeing his brother’s reaction had a profound effect on the boy. In the clip below taken from a 1976 McKeldin-Jackson Project interview, Parren Mitchell discusses his reaction to his brother’s experience and the impact it had on him.

The murder of George Armwood was the last recorded lynching in Maryland. Clarence returned to Princess Anne to cover the trial of four men arrested for their participation in the lynching. Violence was again in the air as another mob formed, and National Guard troops were sent in. The case was eventually dismissed due to insufficient evidence. Out of the more than 5,000 documented lynchings that occurred in the United States between 1890 and 1960, less than one percent resulted in a conviction.

Clarence Mitchell, Jr. and Parren Mitchell, not dated, Clarence Mitchell Jr. Funeral Program, March 23, 1984, MdHS, MS 3092.

Both Clarence and Parren went on to dedicate their lives to furthering the cause of civil rights. Following World War II, Clarence became the labor secretary for the NAACP, and in 1950 he became the director of the organization’s Washington bureau, quickly emerging as the leading civil rights lobbyist in Washington. Known as the “101st Senator,” he was instrumental in helping to usher major civil rights legislation through Congress: The Civil Rights Acts of 1957, 1960, and 1964, the Voting Rights Act of 1965, and the Fair Housing Act of 1968. One journalist called him “the prime source of moral pressure for the cause of racial justice.” In 1985 the city courthouse in downtown Baltimore was named in his honor.

Parren’s career was no less distinguished than that of his elder brother’s. Within a year of the Armwood lynching, Parren joined his brother in a picket against local merchants over discriminatory hiring practices near their home in northwest Baltimore. Over the course of a more than 50 year career in the civil rights movement and politics at the state and national level, Mitchell established a number of firsts for African-Americans. In 1950 he became the first to attend the University of Maryland’s College Park campus when he was accepted into the school’s graduate school of sociology after suing to gain entrance.

When Mitchell was elected to Congress in 1970 as a representative of Maryland’s 7th district, he not only became the first African-American congressman from Maryland, but the first since 1898 to hold a congressional seat from a state south of the Mason-Dixon line. He also was one of the founding members of the congressional black caucus. Over the course of his eight terms as a congressman, Mitchell remained a tireless advocate for increasing economic opportunities for minorities and minority owned businesses. (Damon Talbot)

Sources and further reading:

African American Leaders of Maryland: a Portrait Gallery, Suzanne E. Chapelle & Glenn O. Phillips (Baltimore: Maryland Historical Society, 2004)

“Clarence Mitchell: Man who was always there,” Peter Kumpa, Baltimore Evening Sun, March 20, 1984.

Here Lies Jim Crow: Civil Rights in Maryland, C. Fraser Smith (Baltimore: The JohnsHopkinsUniversity Press, 2008)

Lion in the Lobby: Clarence Mitchell, Jr.’s Struggle for the Passage of Civil Rights Laws, Denton L. Watson (New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc., 1990)

“Parren J. Mitchell: 1922-2007, Crusader for justice dies at 85,” Sun staff, Baltimore Sun, May 29, 2007

“Parren Mitchell, 85, Congressman and Rights Leader, Dies,” Douglas Martin, The New York Times, May 30, 2007.

“Shore starting to face up to past, some say,” Tom Dunkel, Baltimore Sun, February 25, 2007.





Oral History of the Month: Collision – People and Events that Shaped the Vietnam era in Maryland

Welcome to the inaugural post of what will be a monthly series highlighting interviews and other recorded materials from the Maryland Historical Society’s collection of over 1200 oral histories. The collection ranges from interviews with Maryland politicians such as Theodore R. McKeldin, mayor of Baltimore (1943-1947, 1963-1967) and governor of Maryland (1951-1959), to interviews with more anonymous figures, such as Baltimore screen painter Richard Oktavec. MdHS’s earliest oral history is a 1948 Library of Congress recording of an interview with Baltimore journalist H.L. Mencken; the most recent addition is a 2012 interview with Esther McCready, the first African-American undergraduate accepted at the University of Maryland in 1950.

Anti-war demonstrator, University of Maryland College Park, 1971, OH 9918. Interviewee Jordan Goodman took this photograph of a demonstrator confronting National Guard troops in front of the Administration Building at the University of Maryland, College Park during the antiwar protests that occurred on the campus in the spring of 1971.(Photograph is not part of the MdHS’s collection)

This month we’ll be spotlighting an oral history project conducted in 2008 and just recently made available to the public: Collision: People and Events that Shaped the Vietnam era in Maryland. The project, a joint endeavor between MdHS and the now defunct Doris M.Johnson High School in Baltimore, consists of eight interviews with anti-war activists and Vietnam veterans.

Maryland was host to a number of significant anti-war activities during the Vietnam War era. One of the more famous incidents occurred on May 17, 1968 when a group of Catholic activists, including brothers Philip and Daniel Berrigan, set hundreds of draft records ablaze outside of the Catonsville Selective Service office. In October of 1968, the group, which came to be known as the Catonsville Nine, was found guilty in federal court of destruction of U.S. property and interference with the Selective Service Act of 1967. Sentenced to prison terms ranging from two to three and a half years, some of the group chose to go underground; in 1978, Mary Moylan, the last remaining at large member surrendered to the FBI. The Catonsville Nine action and subsequent trial were a major influence on future anti-war and peace actions.

A larger, but less well known series of protests occurred on the campus of the University of Maryland, College Park in May of 1970. On May 1, in response to President Nixon’s announcement of the U.S. invasion of Cambodia the previous day, over 1000 anti-war protesters occupied Route One, ransacked the ROTC armory on campus, and engaged state and local police in often violent confrontations. The thirteen hour long episode marked the beginning of a three week series of violent protests that eventually saw the National Guard called in.  Although overshadowed by the deaths of four students at the hands of National Guardsmen on May 4 at Kent State University, the demonstrations were some of the largest and most violent of those that swept college campuses during that month. The National Guard also returned to the campus in the spring of 1971 and 1972 in response to student protest.

Interviewees in this project include activist and former nun, Elizabeth McAlister, widow of Catonsville Nine member Philip Berrigan (1923-2002).  McAlister discusses the Catonsville Nine action and subsequent trial and her own involvement in the anti-war movement, as well as providing insights into Philip Berrigan’s faith and philosophy. Activist David Eberhardt, in a separate interview, speaks about his involvement in the civil rights and peace movements, including his role as a member of the Baltimore Four. The group, which included Phillip Berrigan, was arrested for pouring blood on draft records at the Baltimore Custom House on October 27, 1967.

The project also contains one of the last interviews with historian and activist Howard Zinn before he passed away in January of 2010. Zinn, best known for his book A People’s History of the Unites States, discusses his anti-war activism during the Vietnam War as well as his experiences as a bombardier during World War II.  Below is a clip from the interview with Zinn speaking about the impact of Baltimore Quaker Norman Morrison’s November 2, 1965 self-immolation in front of the Pentagon in protest of the Vietnam War.

Photograph: Interviewee Jordan Goodman took this photograph of anti-war demonstrators gathering on College Avenue at the University of Maryland, College Park on May 5, 1971. (Photograph is not part of the MdHS’s collection)

For more information on this oral history project, including an inventory of the interviews, please visit the project page. (Damon Talbot)