Taraji P. Henson, an actress and novelist, acted in the historical drama Hidden Figures as Katherine Johnson, a real-life African-American mathematician whose work aided NASA, the space race, and the advancement of science.
Taraji’s great-great uncle, Matthew Alexander Henson, was also an important figure in the fields of science and exploration, which is an interesting connection to her family.
Matthew Henson was an African-American explorer who was a participant of an expedition that claimed to be the first to reach the North Pole. Matthew was the first member of the party to reach the North Pole.
Joseph Henson, Taraji P. Henson’s great-great grandfather, was Matthew’s half-brother. Nanjemoy, a small community in Maryland south of Washington, D.C., was home to the Henson family. For at least three generations, the Henson family has called this place home.
Lemuel Henson and Caroline Waters Gaines, sharecroppers, gave birth to Matthew Henson on August 8, 1866. Taraji P. Henson’s 3rd great grandpa is Lemuel Henson. Before the American Civil War, he and his family were free people of color.
Matthew Henson started working as a ship cabin boy at the age of twelve, waiting on officers and doing errands for the captain. Before returning to Washington, D.C., Matthew spent six years working on ships. to work in a clothing store as a salesperson One day, a customer came into the store and changed Matthew’s life forever.
Robert Peary, a US Navy admiral and American explorer, was that customer. Peary quickly employed Henson as a valet after learning of his seagoing skills.
Peary’s first surveying missions took him to Nicaragua, where he met Matthew Henson. Peary was so impressed with Henson during their time together that he recruited him as a partner for future missions. They set their sights on an entirely different scene after their mission in sweltering and humid Central America: the bleak, freezing lands of the Arctic.
Henson served as a navigator and craftsman on Peary’s first Arctic trip in 1891–92. Everyone on the trip regarded Henson as Peary’s “first man.”
Henson eventually earned the acclaim he deserved in later years. He was inducted into the elite Explorers Club in New York City in 1937, a professional club dedicated to scientific exploration. In 1944, Congress presented Henson (along with five other explorers from the expedition) with duplicates of Peary’s silver Polar Expedition Medal. Presidents Truman and Eisenhower also paid tribute to Henson.
Matthew Henson died in New York City on September 3, 1955. In a remembrance ceremony in 1988, the remains of Henson and his wife, Lucy, were transferred to Arlington National Cemetery.
Taraji P. Henson, Matthew Henson’s great-great niece, went to North Carolina Agricultural and Technical State University to study electrical engineering. Later, she proceeded to Howard University to pursue a degree in drama.
Taraji P. Henson became the first African-American actress to win the Critics Choice Television Award for Best Actress in a Drama Series (for Empire) in 2015, making her the first African-American actress to do so in the show’s history. Taraji’s Henson family looks to have been African-American trailblazers of “firsts” all the way up to the present day.