Black History and the national parks

African American history is tied to the origins of the National Parks. From defending parks in brigades, to being some of the first Park Rangers, to paving the literal trails that we still walk today, African Americans have made huge contributions to the National Park System. 

Scroll to read African American history and current stories in the National Parks, read books by black park rangers, and find organizations that are advancing diversity outdoors.  

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african american stories in the park

While the National Park Service (NPS) turned 100 last year, African Americans still represent only about seven percent of park visitors. In comparison, they make up thirteen percent of the national population. Latinos, Native Americans, and other non-white visitors are similarly underrepresented. The rest—some 78 percent—are white. NPS employees are 83% white.

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People of Color and
Their Constraints to National Parks Visitation

The United States population is becoming more ethnically and racially diverse than in the past. More than one-third of all Americans can be classified as a person of color (Black, Hispanic, Asian, or Native American), and the proportion of ethnic and racial minorities is projected to increase in the future (US Census Bureau 2012). Hispanics are now the largest minority group in the United States, followed by African Americans, Asian Americans, and
Native Americans. Demographers predict that the White population will become a numerical minority by 2050 (Colby and Ortman 2015). 

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Bad things happen in the woods: the anxiety of hiking while black

In this article by the Guardian, three African American hikers describe fears and stereotypes they have faced – and why they love hitting the trails

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20 and odd: Exploring 400 years of the African American Experience

Set against 400 years of suffering, healing, and strength, with a backdrop of our nation’s most storied lands, the innumerable contributions of African Americans to the foundation of the United States are recognized in this short film. “Twenty & Odd” serves as a visual tool to inform and highlight and to educate the nation as a whole about the trauma, resilience, and beauty of the African American experience in our country through the lens of sites stewarded by the National Park Service. This film provides an opportunity to motivate and empower people from all walks of life to adopt and maintain healthy lifestyle behaviors, cultivate personal connections with national parks, and embrace parks as welcoming sources of health and healing.

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How African American Soldiers Shaped the First National Parks

“We arrived as indigenous Africans comfortable in the outdoors,” Johnson says. “But when you’ve been enslaved for many generations and trapped and beaten or worse for having the temerity to escape… then that environment will forever be stained by what happened. [That fear] is in our genes.”

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We're Here. You Just Don't See Us.

There’s a common misconception that black people don’t love wild places. Latria Graham, a southerner with deep connections to farms, rivers, and forests, says the problem isn’t desire but access—and a long history of laws and customs that have whitewashed our finest public lands.

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The Black History Month Blog I DIDN’T Write

Given that I think the survival of the entire human race is in jeopardy under the current US administration, it’s hard for me to focus on the history and contributions made to this country by my black brothers and sisters and our forebears. Dealing with the cascading assaults upon the pillars of our democracy including mad ravings about the press, judiciary and our populace coming from the highest office in the land, coupled with the health issues of an aging parent put my blog far down on my list. As familiar as I am with the natural and historical landscape of America in national parks from Alaska to Florida, NOTHING prepared me to deal with the current maelstrom.

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African Americans Are Important To The Survival Of National Parks

The beauty of Yosemite’s trails and wilderness is what first drew hiking enthusiast Teresa Baker into frequenting more national parks. Like the hundreds of other visitors to the parks, Baker’s attention was turned to the natural landscape, but when the young African American decided to engage in a little people-watching, she noticed something striking.

“On one of my Yosemite visits in 2012,” she tells High Country News, “I started to take notice of how many African Americans I encountered. At the end of my second day in the park, I had not seen one other African American.”

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Sign my name to freedom: a memoir of a pioneering life by betty reid soskin

n Betty Reid Soskin’s 96 years of living, she has been a witness to a grand sweep of American history. When she was born in 1921, the lynching of African-Americans was a national disgrace, minstrel shows were the most popular American form of entertainment, women were looked at suspiciously by many for exercising their right to vote, and most African-Americans in the Deep South could not vote at all.

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gloryland by shelton johnson

Born on Emancipation Day, 1863, to a sharecropping family of black and Indian blood, Elijah Yancy never lived as a slave—but his self–image as a free person is at war with his surroundings: Spartanburg, South Carolina, in the Reconstructed South. Exiled for his own survival as a teenager, Elijah walks west to the Nebraska plains—and, like other rootless young African–American men of that era, joins up with the US cavalry.

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Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors

Why are African Americans so underrepresented when it comes to interest in nature, outdoor recreation, and environmentalism? In this thought-provoking study, Carolyn Finney looks beyond the discourse of the environmental justice movement to examine how the natural environment has been understood, commodified, and represented by both white and black Americans. Bridging the fields of environmental history, cultural studies, critical race studies, and geography, Finney argues that the legacies of slavery, Jim Crow, and racial violence have shaped cultural understandings of the "great outdoors" and determined who should and can have access to natural spaces.

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a buffalo soldier speaks - podcast by shelton johnson

Born on Emancipation Day, 1863, to a sharecropping family of black and Indian blood, Elijah Yancy never lived as a slave—but his self–image as a free person is at war with his surroundings: Spartanburg, South Carolina, in the Reconstructed South. Exiled for his own survival as a teenager, Elijah walks west to the Nebraska plains—and, like other rootless young African–American men of that era, joins up with the US cavalry.

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Our Initiative

Our initiative is to diversify our national parks by using a three layered approach:
Awareness - get people to stop and realize there is a problem here
Education - give them exposure to first hand experiences 
Action - take action by donating, volunteering, or spreading awareness
We're focused on connecting to more diverse audiences and creating content with this audience in mind. Join Our Facebook Group below to join the discussion, share information, and connect with like-minded individuals. 

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Organizations advancing diversity outdoors

As an outdoor enthusiast, you may be wondering what you can to do support diversity, equity, and inclusion in the outdoors. The recent prominence of the Black Lives Matter Movement has brought issues of inequality and racism in the outdoors to the forefront and has made us question what we can do to be better allies and help drive change.

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