Why Environmental History Is Black History

A combination of history and branding left people of color out of national parks and nature.
January 16, 2017, 1:00pm

National parks are waiving their entrance fees in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. On a day that's meant to honor one of history's greatest civil rights activists, it's welcome encouragement to find some solitude outdoors.

For people of color, however, taking the day to commune with nature isn't always as simple as lacing up and getting outside. American history largely amplifies the white men who put their names on our nation's landmarks, and leaves out or downplays the rest. Even the branding of hiking and outdoor activities skews heavily white.

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But groups like Outdoor Afro, which organize hiking and nature excursions for people of color, aim to overcome the isolation and fear that can come with being a minority in the great outdoors. Outdoor Afro is hosting healing hikes on inauguration weekend around the country, using song and sunshine to recharge for what wilderness lies ahead.

Join us to increase Black engagement in nature: Outdoor AfroJanuary 11, 2017

Founder Rue Mapp told the Guardian, "African Americans have been segregated from using public parks and lands, there have been black sections only. We have had to unravel the exclusion people have had in the past, coupled with realities that people now have to figure out how to fit it into their busy lives. If you don't have historic connection to national parks, that's a very big ask."

Rahawa Haile, an Eritrean-American writer who hiked the Appalachian Trail last year, told me that hiking groups for people of color provide a "safe entry point" for those who want to get out in nature, but fear being "othered" in the experience.

"They are an attempt to rebrand the concept of wilderness from its historic ties to exclusion and violence to one of freedom and belonging," she says. "If nothing else, they provide a sense of community in a space that can often feel isolating."

While the number of black visitors to parks is in the single digits — seven percent in 2008-09, according to the most recent NPS data on racial and ethnic diversity — there are many, many examples of black people carving the path for how we experience nature today As Outdoor Afro highlights on their blog, Harriet Tubman herself was an adept outdoorswoman, using the stars to navigate along the Underground Railroad and leading people quietly and safely by night. To call her a "hiker" might be understating her accomplishments, but she was inarguably a wilderness survivalist.

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James Beckwourth, another former slave, was a mountain man and fur trapper in the early 1800s. He's credited with discovering Beckwourth Pass in 1850, and is the only African American in the West to record his own life story. Colonel Charles Young, born to enslaved parents in 1864, became the first African-American National Parks superintendent.

The Buffalo Soldiers were black servicemen who quite literally shaped how the parks system began.

But history has tainted that perception: The Homestead Act of 1862, for example, allowed European-descended settlers to land-grab throughout the West, with no recourse for indigenous people already living there. Black people were left out entirely.

Although the stereotype that people of color don't "do" nature, the act of hiking while black brings up tensions around what it means to be American. As geographer and author Carolyn Finney told the Boston Herald: "Even though the way I am is very American, and I was dressed in backpacker gear and all that, it really messed with their minds that I could possibly be from the US. My presence, in nature, literally colored the way people were able to see me."

Meanwhile, there's a decent case to be made that MLK himself was probably an environmentalist, or at least a lover of the natural world. He did implore that freedom ring from the "heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania" to "every hill and molehill of Mississippi," after all.

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