Back in 2007, Barbara Hillary became the first African American woman to travel to the North pole at age 75. Four years later, Hillary would break another record, reaching the South Pole at age 79. Overcoming obstacles and challenges along the way, Hillary busted through the walls of ageism that can so often confine seniors in today’s travel industry.
Hillary is a firecracker, a well of wisdom, and a woman who defies every stereotype that society tends to force upon their elderly. Looking back on her record-breaking trip, Hillary speaks candidly with Unearth Women Editor-in-Chief, Nikki Vargas, on ageism, the inspiration behind her journey, and her next adventure to Mongolia.
Unearth Women (UW): You are the first black woman to reach both the North and South poles! What was the inspiration behind your record-breaking trip?
Barbara Hillary (BH): I started photographing polar bears after retiring and fell in love with the North and with the people that I met—they were interesting, they were dynamic, they had a lust for life—and after that, I went on to learn to snowmobile and dog sled. I started to think about traveling to the North Pole and when I inquired, I learned that no Black woman had ever gone before.
UW: Once you decided to embark on a journey to the North Pole, what happened next?
BH: Confusion! As a 75-year-old black woman who decided she wanted to ski to the North Pole, where could I start? Who could I ask? Where could I get the money? The questions kept mounting, I thought I’d be submerged in the questions. Then, when I attempted to ask the questions, the answers were very discouraging or just blank looks.
I had to sit down, pull all this together, learn from my mistakes, and that’s how I got started. It was a matter of raising money and convincing potential funders that I was not a woman running loose in a nursing home, using the telephone, and calling people at random.
Just imagine my opening introduction: “Hello, my name is Barbara Hillary. I’m a 75-year-old black woman and my goal is to ski to the North pole.” How often do you hear that? This was part of the difficulty and the challenges that I had to face. Financial challenges, human challenges, it seemed as if it never ended.
UW: Did you face racial challenges in the planning of your trip?
BH: There was ageism and, in all probability, there was racism. However, there were so many wonderful people that overshadowed some of the difficulties that I faced. There were potential sponsors who took the time to help me in terms of equipment and what I needed. That is what overshadowed the negative. I can’t remake people, I can’t change their values, but I can salute and show my appreciation for people who are very nice. I must say that racism was not a key factor.
UW: You mentioned facing ageism challenges. What are your thoughts on ageism in today’s travel industry?
BH: I think the travel industry is just a parcel of the American problem with its elderly. We live in a society that does not hold the elderly within the same respect and high esteem as other cultures. I say this not only based on my own experience as an older person but as a person who has completed graduate and post-graduate studies in the field of gerontology. Reinforced with the most important study is growing older and how people treat you and how people dismiss you and how people assume you can’t hear, can’t see, or how dare you mention sex, and how you should be happy to sit home or go to a nursing home and die quietly and become a source of profit for the nursing home industry.
UW: Have you felt the ageism paradigm shift at all since your record-breaking endeavor?
BH: If one wants to institute major changes in society, it doesn’t start with one act. We have to look at how our society is structured. As long as our society is structured in such a way that the elderly are portrayed—in television and commercials—as mindless, sexless, useless, this permeates and goes forwards. My suggestion is we, as a society, look at what we’re doing and then we start to change it through education at a young age.