Updated: Oct 17, 2020
Blair Niles was an explorer and author whose childhood on her parents’ Virginia plantation in the 1890s, taught her empathy for oppressed and marginalized people. From
1909-1911, she traveled around the world on an ornithological expedition with her then-husband, naturalist William Beebe. After she divorced him, she traveled to Haiti and South America to examine the cultures there. Her career was enhanced by her friends, which included aviator Amelia Earhart, and mountaineer Annie Smith Peck.
I became intrigued with Blair after I returned from a 10-week trip to Asia. I returned determined to write a book about an explorer. I stumbled across her ex-husband, Will Beebe, a fascinating scientist was lowered a half mile into the ocean in a round metal submersible, lowered by cable. But more on Will later—my next book is about Will and how he exploited his women employees. I found out Will had been married to Blair, and after their divorce, she blossomed into an extraordinary explorer and humanitarian.
I was fascinated when I discovered she co-founded the Society of Woman Geographers, still in existence today, when the all-male Explorers Club refused to admit women. As the United Press reported:
“Women can chip ice souvenirs off the North Pole, can photograph llamas in the most forbidden cities of Tibet, [and] penetrate the deepest part of Africa…, but they cannot get through the front gate of the explorers’ club.”
I was amazed when I learned that Blair wrote a book on the largest slave revolution in the world. On the centennial of the Supreme Court’s Amistad decision, she wrote a novel that introduced to a new generation to the Court’s decision, which held that kidnapped blacks were not the property of their “owners.” She exposed the brutal conditions of the South American jungle prison where France sentenced its convicts to die, famous by the book (and movie) Papillon.
Blair Interviewing Prisoner at Devil’s Island Prison in 1926, Harry Ransom Center Archives
But the clincher was when I learned that she wrote the first compassionate book about same-sex relationships in Harlem in 1931! I wondered why a book had not been written on this forward-thing woman.
But it was not easy to research Blair Niles. There are no archives dedicated to her. I had to find bits and pieces in other people’s archives, and in the seventeen books she wrote. Her file was missing at the Society of Woman Geographers archives located in the Library of Congress. I expanded the book to focus on Blair and her network of friends and how they advocated for suffrage, for tolerance, and against discrimination in the early 1900s. These women were brave. They fought so that we could have the right to vote and the right to pursue a career of own own choosing—at a time when wearing pants and discarding a corset was a true act of courage! Although discrimination exists today, these women teach us that with persistence, courage, and a bit of recklessness, we can stand up to discrimination and change public opinion.
Writing The Girl Explorers was a labor of love and I am glad to share my findings with you...both in this blog and in my book.
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