On April 23, 2007, Barbara Hillary became the first African-American woman on record and one of the oldest people ever to reach the North Pole. The spunky lung cancer survivor made it to the top of the world on cross-country skis. Now the 76-year-old former nurse educator, community activist and motivational speaker is planning another polar exposition, this time to the South Pole.
Intrigued, AHB caught up with Barbara Hillary at her home in Queen’s, New York City.
Ruth Dempsey: What was it like to grow up in Harlem in the 1930s?
Barbara Hillary: When I was a child, every block in Harlem was a mini-village. I guess you could say we were poor. And compared to people who lived below 96th Street in Manhattan, we were. But life has shown me poverty is a state of mind. And I never knew mental poverty.
Let me try to explain. There was no, "woe is me" in our home. I worked for my allowance and, when there was none, I found ways to make honest pocket money. I learned the meaning of the word "no" and respected my mother’s right to set limits. Early on, I was taught life does not always deal you a hand of immediate gratification. If this happens, you simply tighten your belt and work a little harder. And, guess what, those where good days. Now looking back on 76 years, I can see this foundation was critical in helping me fulfill my dreams.
RD: What activities did you enjoy as a child?
BH: My favorite pursuits were reading, visiting museums and going to Rolls Royce and Bentley Show rooms. That’s right, I fell in love with the Rolls Royce. Remember, I mentioned there was no such thing as mental poverty in my home. So at the age of nine, it was very natural for me to go to the Rolls Royce show room, ask the salesman to
open the hood and pepper him with questions. I look back and smile now and wonder what those salesmen thought of me. If you had asked me what I wanted to be when I was a child, I would have said a veterinarian. Even now, my life continues to be enriched by my animal friends.
RD: Your mother, Viola Jones Hillary, played a stellar role in your life. Who was she?
BH: Viola Jones Hillary was my mother and my hero. My father died when I was about a year and a half. I have vivid memories of how hard she worked during the Depression and the high standards she set for my sister and myself. My mother permitted me to be a free thinker; that was a priceless gift.
Education ruled in my home, and I am one happy camper that it did. If my mother had not instilled in me the value of work, the importance of education and respect for other people, I would have lacked the fibre and guts required to reach the North Pole.
RD: After battling cancer at 67, you set off to photograph polar bears in Manitoba. Is that right?
BH: I am not going to dwell on being a lung cancer survivor. Life is a series of chapters. I have moved through life trying to take the best of each chapter forward and leaving the negative behind. Certainly, I found it stimulating and fun to go to Manitoba and photograph the polar bears.
RD: You also spent time dog sledding in Quebec?
BH: That’s right. I had fun telling jokes and laughing with my French Canadian friends. And I enjoyed the beauty of Quebec as I drove my dog team through the pristine snow.
RD: Your "can do" attitude appears to have been part of your character from the start?
BH: If someone had told me in 2005 that I would be the first African-American woman to stand on the Geographic North Pole, I would have laughed for a week without stopping, or I would have suggested the person needed to have his or her medication adjusted.
However, you just don’t know how one minute, one hour or one day can affect your life. This is why I try to live life fully each day and maintain a sense of humor. If I elect to squander this one life I have, living for every one except my self, then I have no one to blame but myself.
RD: Were you scared, when the big day arrived?
BH: On April 16, 2007, I said goodbye to my friends at Newark Airport and walked through the gate into the Scandinavian Airline System Center en route to Sweden and
then to Longyearbyen, Norway. The airline staff knew I was a woman on a mission. They were just wonderful and very supportive.
I was alone – and on my way to the North Pole. And not for the first time, I asked myself, "Barbara have you lost your mind?"
On April 23, 2007, I made it to the top!
Editor’s Note: Hillary is now training for her trek to the South Pole. For more about this intrepid explorer, go to barbarahillary.com.