New School Alumna Barbara Hillary, the First African American Woman to Reach the North Pole, Dies at 88
Barbara Hillary, an explorer, retired nurse, cancer survivor, and New School alumna, the first African American woman to reach the North Pole, died on Saturday at a hospital in Far Rockaway, Queens. She was 88.
Hillary was awarded an honorary doctorate at The New School’s 81st Commencement ceremony in 2017. In her speech, she encouraged graduates to follow a path of perseverance and determination to achieve their goals.
“I was raised in Harlem,” she told thousands of graduates at Arthur Ashe Stadium in Queens. “My father died when I was two. And we were poor. We were sub-Depression poor. But there was no such thing as mental poverty in our home. There was no such thing as ‘Woe is me.’ My mother always told me, ‘If you want something in this world, get off your ass and work for it.’”
After traveling to the North Pole in 2007, at the age of 75, Hillary reached the South Pole four years later. Earlier this year, she traveled to Mongolia to visit a nomadic tribe “whose rural way of life was disappearing because of climate change,” according to a New York Times obituary. While visiting the region, she “spent a day with Kazakh rug makers” and “gave a talk at a village school. “
By all accounts, Barbara Hillary was an extraordinary woman who through sheer grit and determination defied the odds to make these expeditions late in life. Hillary’s explorations were well chronicled, but equally heroic were her fights against cancer and her effort to recover her house after the devastating impact of Hurricane Sandy. She battled breast cancer in her 20s and lung cancer in her 60s, and as a result of surgery, lost 25 percent of her breathing capacity.
Hillary spent 55 years as a nurse and also worked as a New York City cab driver. She was also an avid gardener, growing roses and tomatoes.
Born on June 12, 1931, in Manhattan, Hillary earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at The New School. She was a student in the Gerontological Services Administration, in what was then called the Graduate School of Management and Urban Professions.
Hillary’s website describes her as the founder and editor in chief of the Peninsula Magazine, a nonprofit magazine based in Queens. Hillary was also a dedicated community activist, the founder of the Arverne Action Association, a group that worked to improve life in the Rockaway Peninsula.
Hillary became interested in Arctic travel when, after retiring as a nurse, she went to Manitoba, Canada, to photograph polar bears. When she discovered that no Black woman had ever gone to the North Pole, she decided to be the first. According to the Times, Hillary prepared for her first trek to the North Pole by “taking cross-country skiing lessons and hiring a personal trainer…. She raised the necessary $25,000, mostly through donations, for equipment and transportation.”
In an interview with the New Yorker last summer, Hillary said that despite chronic illness, she was already planning her next adventure, a trip to Russia.
“You see, dreams, even if they don’t come true, are important. Isn’t it great to maintain a dream or a memory?” she said. “Am I a hopeless dreamer, or was I born at the wrong time?”