Black People Don’t Hike and Other Myths
Tiya Miles’ recent opinion piece—Black Bodies, Green Spaces—in the New York Times raised an issue that has been around since the end of slavery, but which remains little discussed and even less understood. Americans do not see any connection between African-Americans and environmentalism. While there isthe history of Blacks fleeing the southern fields where they were enslaved, there is also an overlooked history of African-Americans’ interest in and contributions to the environmental movement.
The Great Migration involved Blacks leaving the rural southeast US to escape the memories of slavery, the horror of the Ku Klux Klan and suppression of Jim Crow laws to seek employment in the North, Midwest and West. Of course, Blacks aspired to earn white-color jobs and not think about picking cotton in the country. But there remained ties to and a love of the outdoors, as many Black children spent summers back in rural areas of the South, visiting their grandparents still there.
Most myths about African-Americans and the outdoors resulted from discrimination against Blacks, who sought to enjoy or work professionally in the outdoors during the last century. Fun has always been made of Black people not knowing how to swim, without acknowledging that Blacks were barred from public swimming pools and parks. Even colleges that were not officially segregated had barriers. For example, even Cornell University, whose motto had always been “any student, any study,” did not allow Black students to live on campus or had quotas and requirements limiting areas of study for Black men or women interested in attending the Colleges of Agriculture or Veterinary Medicine. Discrimination in hiring after graduation was also a problem for people of color seeking environmental careers.
During the Civil Rights Movement, Blacks who were studying or working in conservation fields were often even shunned by other Blacks, who felt worrying about nature was “acting white” or not “relevant.” Yet most people now do not realize that Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs) in the South started as agricultural schools and have been responsible for graduating a large percentage of the Black professionals in the US.
The contributions of Blacks in conservation have been ignored in text books and the media. During the Clinton Administration, for example, African-Americans held high positions in the Departments of Agriculture and Interior, with responsibility for managing hundreds of thousands of acres of public lands and minerals throughout the US. Yet, even today, anyone reading US history books, magazines and newspapers, would think that Blacks have only been successful athletes or entertainers. Black youth are still encouraged to be “like Mike,” not a forester.
Progress is being made, though, as Facebook groups like Black Girls Hike, demonstrate a growing interest among younger people. Some environmental groups, like the Sierra Club, are finally implementing inclusion initiatives. Black women lead campaigns for clean water. But until people of all races resist the increasingly anti-intellectual trend in the US and acknowledge the benefits of ethnic diversity in all professions, African-Americans will remain woefully under-represented in environmental fields.