North Pole became this family's guiding light

January 31, 1991|By Clarice Scriber

When Herbert M. Frisby flew over the North Pole in 1956, his grandson Russell was just 5 years old, but the event made a lifelong impression on young Russell.

As the years passed, Russell Frisby Jr., now a partner in the law firm of Venable, Baetjer and Howard, became more than a spectator in the historical drama of Herbert Frisby. He became the older Frisby's pupil.

"By the time I was 7," he says, "I could give the tour of the 'Igloo' [the museum in his grandfather's Bateman Avenue home] as well as my grandfather."

During his early years, Russell Frisby also participated in numerous public functions honoring his grandfather for his expeditions and for his work in bringing recognition to the first black man to reach the North Pole, Maryland native Matthew A. Henson.

The elder Frisby first heard of Matthew Henson when he was a sixth-grader in South Baltimore's old Hill School. Mr. Frisby's history teacher captured his imagination as the teacher told the story of Adm. Robert Edwin Peary, the first man to reach the North Pole. This was accomplished in April 1909, and was done with the aid of Henson, Adm. Peary's assistant.

During the lecture, the teacher explained that Matthew Henson held the distinction of being the first black to reach the North Pole. The teacher added that he expected Henson would be the last. Not so, according to Herbert Frisby, who raised his hand to tell his teacher and classmates that he would also reach the North Pole.

Fate and determination proved him to be right. Mr. Frisby achieved worldwide fame for his Arctic explorations, beginning in World War II when he served in Alaska as a correspondent for the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper. He eventually made 26 Arctic explorations, and in 1956 he was flown on a special mission to the North Pole on a U.S. Air Force plane to drop a bronze plaque as a memorial to Matthew Henson.

During his travels, he collected a large number of Arctic artifacts and gave numerous lectures on the subject. His collection has been on display at the Maryland Science Center and the Maryland Historical Society, among many other places.

Mr. Frisby, a graduate of Howard University, headed the science department at Douglass High School for almost 30 years and taught at Coppin State College.

He flew to both poles, and spent much of his adult life exploring the arctic regions. His artifacts were exhibited in his west Baltimore home for thousands of Baltimoreans to see. He also crusaded to win for Matthew Henson proper recognition for his exploits.

"My grandfather and I spent a lot of time thinking about where his collection should go," Russell Frisby said. "It boiled down to Banneker-Douglass, the Maryland Historical Society and the Smithsonian. All three were quite anxious to get [the collection].

"We decided it was appropriate to go to Banneker-Douglass for a number of reasons. First, it was an African-American museum dedicated to African-American state history.

"Also, in keeping with my grandfather's philosophy of life, he wanted the collection to be seen. We were concerned that if it went to one of the other institutions, the collection would only be shown every few years and the memory would fade away."

The Frisby and Henson exhibits can now be viewed in Frisby Hall on the second floor of the Banneker-Douglass Museum at 84 Franklin St., Annapolis.

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