Barbara Hillary, 1st African-American woman to reach North and South poles, dies in NYC at 88

Barbara Hillary
Photo credit Barbara Hillary

NEW YORK (1010 WINS) – Barbara Hillary, a native New Yorker and trailblazing adventurer best known for being the first African-American woman to reach the North and South poles, has died at 88.

She passed away shortly after midnight Saturday in a hospital in Far Rockaway surrounded by loved ones.

Her friend Deborah Bogosian tells 1010 WINS that Hillary's health had been in decline for several months but that she still dreamed big.

“There were still so many things she wanted to do,” Bogosian wrote to 1010 WINS.

Hillary was born on June 12, 1931 in the San Juan Hill section of Manhattan, which is now the location of Lincoln Center. She has since lived in Queens, where she founded The Peninsula Magazine, a multi-racial publication that was the first of its kind in the region.

Hillary broke her first record when she reached the North Pole at the age of 75 in 2007—she was the first African-American woman to do so. She subsequently reached the South Pole in January 2011 at the age of 79, becoming the first African-American woman to reach both poles.

She learn how to ski in her 70s so she could make the epic trips to the poles.

During Black History Month in 2014, the adventurer told 1010 WINS about what it was like to make those difficult treks.

“Five days, no heat, 40 below. It was so cold,” she said with a laugh.

She said she hurt her finger on one of the expeditions.

“That finger I can only use now for driving in New York,” she said.

Hillary spoke with 1010 WINS again earlier this year before a trip to Mongolia, where she was going to spend a day with an all-female team of Kazakh rug makers and meet a woman who excels in falconry, the hunting of animals using birds of prey.

“It’s exceedingly rare for a woman to exceed in this area, so I’ll spend some time with her,” Hillary told 1010 WINS at the time.

Bogosian said Hillary’s final journey to Mongolia was a success.

“She accomplished that trip, too, against the odds, and with tremendous support from friends, guides, sponsors, journalists and the hospitable people in Mongolia,” Bogosian wrote.

Bogosian said she’ll remember Hillary as a strong and spirited woman: “Everything about her was fascinating, convention-breaking, and confounding. Her record-setting treks, her defeat over cancer, her arduous fight to get her house back after Hurricane Sandy. Her years as a nurse, her gigs as a taxi driver and in sundry other jobs that gave her more than a few stories to tell. Her appreciation for archery, guns and knives, big trucks and big dogs. The roses and miraculous tomatoes she grew.”

“She died in the season of 24-hour sunlight at the South Pole,” Bogosian added.

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