The early Black pioneers of travel achieved extraordinary feats – like Matthew Henson, the first man to reach the North Pole, and Bessie Coleman, the first Black woman to earn a pilot’s licence – while today’s Black adventurers continue to blaze new paths and inspire the Black travel movement. However, many of these remarkable stories have been left out of history books. In honour of Black History Month in the UK, we’re shining a light on 8 of the greatest Black pioneers who changed travel for the better.
1. Bessie Coleman
Bessie Coleman was the first African American woman, and first Native American, to earn a pilot’s licence. Born in 1892 to a family of sharecroppers in Texas, Coleman dreamed of becoming a pilot. When no flight schools in America would accept her, she taught herself French and moved to France to study at the Caudron Brother’s School of Aviation. Coleman completed her degree in seven months and on 15 June, 1921, she became the first Black person to earn an international pilot’s licence from the Fédération Aéronautique Internationale.
She took to the skies, specialising in parachuting and stunt flying, and in 1922, became the first African American woman to make a public flight in America. While Coleman was a fearless pilot and a Black pioneer in travel, she was also an unwavering advocate for Black people in America. Throughout her career, she never performed in an event that did not allow Black people to attend. Coleman once said: “The air is the only place free from prejudices.”
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2. Victor Hugo Green
Victor Hugo Green was one of the greatest Black pioneers of travel. A Black American travel writer and postal employee from Harlem, New York City, Green wrote the first travel guide for African Americans in the United States from 1936 to 1966. Known as The Negro Motorist Green Book, the guide published the hotels, gas stations, and restaurants that served Black people. It helped Black people travel more safely in the Jim Crow era where racial segregation made travelling dangerous for Black people.
In the introduction of the first edition in 1936, Green wrote: “There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal rights and privileges in the United States”
Victor’s wife Alma Duke Green, who grew up in the Jim Crow American South, was the official editor of the Green Book, and played an active role in the evolution of the guide. In 1947, Victor also opened a travel agency that booked reservations with Black-owned businesses.
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3. Kellee Edwards
In 2017, Kellee Edwards became the first Black woman to host a show on the Travel Channel, with “Mysterious Islands”, a travel series exploring the most remote islands worldwide. She is also an Adventure Travel Journalist and the host of Travel + Leisure’s new podcast, Let’s Go Together. As an avid traveller and intrepid explorer, Edwards is a licensed pilot, advanced open water scuba diver, and an accomplished mountaineer. She has a degree in broadcast journalism from Howard University and has visited more than 50 countries. She’s a philanthropist, trailblazer, and Outside Magazine once called her ““The Most Interesting Woman in the World”. It’s a remarkable resume but as Edwards says, “As a woman and as a Black person, in order to get into these spaces, we have to be overqualified.”
Even today, Edwards is just one of two Black women hosts out of over 60 hosts on the Travel Channel. Black female pilots represent less than one percent of pilots, while Black pilots make up fewer than five percent. Edwards is a strong advocate for inclusion in travel and says that investment in Black communities is key to increasing diversity and opportunities for young Black people in travel and television.
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4. Matthew Henson
Matthew Henson was one of the first great Black pioneers of travel – and the first man to stand on top of the world, planting the first US flag at the North Pole in 1909. Henson first began travelling in 1878, aged 12, when he worked as a cabin boy on Katie Hines, a merchant ship sailing to ports in China, Japan, Africa, and the Russian Arctic seas. In 1887, Commander Robert E. Peary recruited Henson for his expedition to Nicaragua. Peary was impressed by Henson’s skills and asked him to travel on his future expeditions, including the North Pole expedition from 1908-1909. When Peary was overcome by frostbite or exhaustion and could not leave his dogsled, Henson forged ahead in the cold with a few Inuit expeditioners and planted the very first flag at the North Pole.
While the expedition was validated as the first to reach the North Pole, the credit that Henson deserved went to Peary. It was not until 1937 that Henson began to receive acclaim for his extraordinary achievement. He was then inducted into the New York Explorer’s club, became an honorary member 11 years later, and was honoured by three US presidents. Henson said, “The path is not easy, the climbing is rugged and hard, but the glory at the end is worthwhile.”
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5. Barbara Hillary
As the first Black woman and the oldest person to reach both the North and South Poles, Barbara Hillary was one of the great Black pioneers of travel. Born in 1931 and raised in Harlem, Barbara went to New School University in New York and became a nurse. She did not pursue an interest in Arctic travel until her retirement. After surviving lung cancer, Hillary raised over $25,000 to fund her expedition to the Arctic.
On 23 April 2007, at 75 years of age, Hillary made history as the first Black woman and oldest person to reach the North Pole. She did it all again five years later when she reached the South Pole on 6 January 2011 at 79 years of age. A remarkable woman and a true intrepid explorer, Hillary’s achievements inspired countless people across the globe.
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6. Jacob and Freddye Henderson
Freddye Henderson and her husband Jacob paved the way for today’s international movement of Black travellers. In 1955, the couple opened Henderson Travel Service in Atlanta, in the turbulent Jim Crow era. They had a dream to help African Americans travel internationally to Africa, then known as the ‘Dark Continent’. Freddye and Jacob led their first group of travellers to Africa on a chartered flight from Paris in 1957, when Ghana celebrated its independence from Britain.
Freddye wanted African Americans to embrace Africa and coined their motto: “Education through Exposure”. As the oldest African-American travel agency, the couple sent hundreds of thousands of travellers to Africa and inspired Black freedom through travel.
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7. Barrington Irving
In 2007, Barrington Irving became the first Black person and the first Jamaican to fly solo around the world. At just 24 years of age, he was also the youngest person to make the solo journey, at the time. Born in Jamaica in 1983, Barrington grew up in Miami, Florida. After turning down multiple football scholarships, he studied aviation at Florida Memorial University, graduating with honours.
While he was still an undergrad student, Irving embarked on his record-breaking solo journey on 23 March 2007. Flying his aeroplane, named “Inspiration”, he stopped in countries in Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East, before touching back down in Miami on 27 June. Irving later founded Experience Aviation, a non-profit organisation empowering minority youth to build careers in aviation.
8. Albert Robinson and Margaret Tull Robinson
Albert Robinson and Margaret Tull Robinson were two of the first Black people to own and operate a business in California. They ran The Hotel Robinson in southern California. Built in 1897, the hotel became a social hub and a place where Black people could go to relax and enjoy themselves in the segregated Jim Crow era. When Albert died in 1915, Margaret ran the hotel alone for seven more years, a trailblazing feat for Black women. The hotel still stands today and is part of the National Register of Historic Places and a California Point of Historic Interest. While it’s now called the Julian Hotel, the preserved architecture and decor pay tribute to the Robinson’s original hotel.
Who are your most inspiring Black pioneers who changed travel? Share your stories in the comments below!
Banner image credit: Kellee Edwards Instagram – @kelleesetgo