Barbara Hillary had a successful career as a professional nurse and served as the Founder and Editor-in-Chief of the Peninsula Magazine, the first multiracial magazine published by a Black woman. She is most well known as being the first Black woman to have ever traveled to both the North and South Pole- both after the age of 75. After retiring, Hillary became fascinated with arctic travel, although she had an adventurous spirit instilled in her at a young age.
Hillary grew up impoverished in Harlem, New York City, and spent much of her time reading, her favorite book being the adventure novel, Robinson Crusoe. She recalled, “there was no such thing as mental poverty in our home.” When Hillary learned that no Black woman had reached the North Pole, she was determined to become the first one to do so. She found new challenges by learning to snowmobile and dog sled in the United States and Canada. A polar expedition at the time cost around $20,000 and required her to ski, something she had never done before. Undeterred, Hillary sent letters to potential sponsors and took in donations, eventually raising over $25,000 to fund her expedition to the Arctic. To prepare for her journey, she took cross-country ski lessons and hired a personal trainer. On April 23, 2007, at the age of 75, she became one of the oldest people to set foot on the North Pole, and the first Black woman. Five years later, she became the first Black woman on record to stand on the South Pole at age 79, on January 6, 2011.
Inspired by her expeditions, Hillary took interest in the effects of climate change on the polar caps and became a fierce advocate for combating climate change. She began lecturing on the topic. Her activism took her to the Mongolian steppe to visit a community whose cultural traditions were at risk due to climate change. Hillary’s career as an inspirational speaker led her to being profiled by NBC News and CNN.com, and she gave speeches at various organizations such as the National Organization for Women (NOW).