"Welcome home, Matt Henson," said Allen Counter, as the flags of Greenland and the United States fluttered on a windy bluff at Arlington National Cemetery.
Matthew Alexander Henson, the black explorer who literally led Robert E. Peary to the North Pole but is only now getting full and final credit for it, was buried with his wife Lucy at Arlington yesterday, the bodies moved from unnoted graves in New York.
The dignitaries were here, the first black American astronaut, Guion Bluford, and the owner of Ebony magazine, John H. Johnson, and the naval officers and the crisp honor guard, and a minister from Harvard, but it was the Henson relatives from Greenland who sat in front.
Two years ago Counter, a professor of neuroscience and director of the Harvard Foundation, met the Eskimo son of Henson and the Eskimo son of Peary in a village on the northern reaches of Greenland. Counter, who was researching Henson's life, had heard from Scandinavian colleagues of some dark-skinned Eskimos there and had gone looking for them.
The two men, Anaukaq Henson and Kali Peary, both 80, came to Washington just a year ago to visit Peary's grave. Anaukaq is dead now, but his children and grandchildren were here yesterday to see the explorer's body placed next to Peary's under a new memorial stone.
The Peary family has not been uniformly enthusiastic about the discovery of the Eskimo relatives, for Peary was married at the time he and Henson spent four years among the Eskimos. For the Hensons it was a different story.
Three grandsons and two great-grandsons came to town for the ceremony, leaving their village by dogsled last Friday to get here in time. The youngest, 10-year-old Magssanguaq Henson, helped Counter unveil the stone and solemnly shook hands with him afterward.
And the oldest, Avataq Henson, received the folded flag in the tradition of military funerals. He and his brother Qitdlaq, who spoke briefly in Inuit through an interpreter, are short men, stocky, unsmiling, with high cheekbones and the weathered skin of lifelong hunters.
Later the great-grandsons placed small wreaths on the explorer's grave. The Greenlanders are staying with friends here. A niece, Olive Henson Fulton, spoke of waiting "for this day for over 30 years." When she wrote about Henson's exploits years ago for her eighth-grade class, she said, the teacher refused to believe the story.
It's been like that in white America through most of the century. Peary's family insisted the Charles County, Md., native was "only a servant," though Peary himself had told colleagues, "He must go with me; I cannot make it alone."
But gradually, through the unrelenting efforts of writer Herbert Frisby and others, it became generally accepted that for the last 133-mile trek to the Pole, the 53-year-old Peary rode in a dogsled because his toes had frozen, while Henson, 42, pushed on, breaking the trail.
He reached the spot 45 minutes before Peary arrived to announce, "89 degrees 57 minutes! The Pole at last!" It was April 6, 1909.
Henson said he reached out his hand to congratulate Peary but was refused. The friendship of the two men, which had begun back in 1888, ended right there. Peary received the honors, retired as a rear admiral, was buried at Arlington. Henson got nothing for 35 years, except for a medal from some Chicago geographers.
Finally in 1945 he was awarded a Navy medal by Congress ... a Defense Department citation in 1949 ... a visit with President Eisenhower at the White House in 1954.
A year later Henson died, aged 89. The plaque in the Maryland State House went up in 1961, and further honors followed. But always he seemed to be an afterthought, an asterisk after Peary's name.
Now he lies beside his estranged friend. "An American hero," Counter said, a quiet man who kept his bitterness to himself, who every year tried to visit Peary's grave and leave a wreath.
"Long overdue recognition ...," Counter said. "We are here to correct a shameful record ..."
The blossoming leaves of a young elm overhead twirled in the soft breeze. "Welcome to the company of your friend Robert Peary," Counter said. "Welcome to a place always yours by right but denied you."
The Hampton University band and choir stirred in their brilliant blue uniforms. The Greenlanders in their black suits, some in white parkas, gazed across the green valley.
"Welcome to the hearts of black Americans," Counter said. "Welcome home, brother Matthew, welcome home."