Each year, California’s Sequoia National Park draws a million people to commune with nature and be dwarfed by some of the largest living things on earth. Visitors pass trees recognizing presidents and heroes of war: Washington, Sherman, Lincoln, Grant. A summit trail bears the name of John Muir, known as the father of our national parks.
But few Americans know the name or story of the man who carved this national park into being: Charles Young, a black Army Captain born into slavery in Mays Lick, Ky. It was Young, with his segregated company and crosscut saws, who transformed Sequoia from an impenetrable wilderness to a tourist mecca. In 1903, with teams of mules hitched to wagons, Young’s mountaineers became the first to enter the Giant Forest on four wheels.
When we think of great conservationists, or just ordinary Americans trekking in the outdoors, we don’t typically picture black faces. There are reasons for that: Today, more than a century since Young’s team opened up Sequoia National Park, blacks are still far less likely to explore its trails. A 2011 survey commissioned by the National Park Service showed that only 7 percent of visitors to the parks system were black. (Blacks make up nearly twice that percentage of the US population.) Latinos were similarly underrepresented.
But if African-Americans don’t figure in our notion of America’s great outdoors, geographer Carolyn Finney argues, it is also because of how the story has been told, and who has been left out—black pioneers and ordinary folk whose contributions to the land have long gone ignored. Reclaiming those stories, she contends, could have huge implications for protecting our wilderness in the future.
Finney, an assistant professor of environmental science, policy, and management at the University of California at Berkeley, spent years researching African-Americans’ connection to natural spaces. In a new book, “Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors,” she finds that that connection is rich, but also distinct and fraught—rooted in a history of racial violence and exclusion that sharply limited black engagement with nature. Those barriers, Finney writes, would come to shape our most basic perceptions about who cherishes nature and who belongs in it.
Weaving scholarly analysis with interviews of leading black environmentalists and ordinary Americans, Finney traces the environmental legacy of slavery and Jim Crow segregation, which mapped the wilderness as a terrain of extreme terror and struggle for generations of blacks—as well as a place of refuge.
The book comes as the Park Service and other conservation agencies struggle to respond to America’s changing demographics and diversify the ranks of visitors and employees. In doing so, they are increasingly turning to a national movement of black outdoor enthusiasts spearheading initiatives that celebrate African-American connections in nature. But to Finney, who serves as chair of the Relevancy Committee for the National Parks Advisory Board, any serious effort to broaden participation in the parks has to begin with getting the history right.
“There’s this prevailing myth of black Americans as alienated from nature, as urban, as deeply unattached. Well, I push back on that, because I think we are actually very attached,” said Finney, speaking about her work in 2012. “There are people of color who have invested blood, sweat, and tears into the land whose stories aren’t acknowledged at all, let alone being recognized as people who care about the environment.”
Finney spoke to Ideas from her home in Berkeley, Calif.
IDEAS: Describe your relationship to nature as an African-American girl growing up in New York.
FINNEY:My parents grew up poor in the South. When my father came back from the Korean War, they decided to move north to New York. His sister was living there and came up with two opportunities: He could be a janitor in Syracuse, or he could be a caretaker living on a wealthy estate just outside the city. That’s where he and my mother moved. The estate was 12 acres, with a pond and lots of fish, vegetable gardens, snapping turtles, deer, geese....I can remember finding the strangest worm, knowing it was out of place and wondering how it got there. I had a favorite rock, which was carved out in the middle, and I would ride it like a horse. And of course I watched my parents tend to the land. The first conservationists I ever knew were my parents.
IDEAS: How did those experiences begin to shape your views about the relationship between black Americans and the outdoors?
FINNEY: After my parents left and moved to Virginia, neighbors of the estate would send letters whenever something significant happened. In 2005 or 2006, my father got a letter saying that there had been a conservation easement placed on the property. In perpetuity, nothing could be changed and no new buildings could be added. And they were thanking the new owner for his conservation-mindedness. In reading it, I couldn’t help thinking, where was the thanks to my parents, who cared for that land for 50 years? That got me thinking about all the people in our history whose stories are unsung or invisible. We don’t hear about them because nobody calls that “conservation.” They don’t fit into the way we talk about environmentalism in the mainstream. So how do we recognize and honor those other stories?
IDEAS: In your book you talk about the stereotype that blacks don’t “do” nature. When did you start to bump up against that?
FINNEY: I think the first thing I came up against was just that black people are different, period—that being black didn’t fit into the dominant culture’s picture of a lot of things I wanted to do. “Black people don’t do” fill-in-the-blank. So it makes sense that that would roll right into ideas about black people and the environment. In the late ’80s and early ’90s, I spent about five years backpacking around the world. And often times it was the Americans who would ask where I was from. 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.
IDEAS: Who were some of the African-Americans environmentalists whose contributions surprised you most?
FINNEY: I interviewed so many people with amazing stories I had never heard of, stories I couldn’t believe the mainstream environmental movement hadn’t picked up on. Like John Francis, who spent 22 years walking across the US and Latin America to raise awareness about the environment. He did 17 years of that without talking! Or MaVynee Betsch, a black woman who gave away all her wealth, over $750,000, to environmental causes. Or Betty Reid Soskin, who at 92 is the oldest park ranger in the country, and who helped to get the Rosie the Riveter National Park on the books. What all of this says to me is the mainstream still has so much work to do to embrace and engage these stories, not just as black stories but as human stories that we can all relate to at a really basic level.
IDEAS: Your book draws parallels between pivotal moments in environmental history and pivotal moments in black history. How are they related?
FINNEY: Well, for example, the Homestead Act of 1862 made it possible for European immigrants to come here and go out West and grab large tracts of land, literally just by grabbing it before anybody else did. And you could just live on it for five years, and build a home and grow food, and it could be yours. That’s amazing. And they were the only ones allowed to participate. That land, we know already, used to belong to Native Americans. And black people weren’t allowed to participate at all.
On the heels of that, you have John Muir talking about preservation of the land and the idea of the national parks as these beautiful spaces that are going to be public treasures for everyone, every American....But meanwhile, enslaved people had just gotten freed, were given land, had that land taken away, and then were living under the threat of Jim Crow segregation for all those years afterward.
That’s a real cognitive dissonance: There were words on paper saying these protected spaces were meant for everyone, but we know they weren’t really meant for everyone, because everything else that was going on in the country at the time indicated that.
IDEAS:Your book describes recent efforts by the National Parks Service to broaden participation of African-Americans and other underrepresented groups in recreation and preservation. Why does broadening participation matter?
FINNEY: If you’re someone who believes in the protection and preservation of a natural space, who’s going to do that? It’s going to be people. The changing demographics in this country mean that those people aren’t going to look like the people from 60 or 70 years ago who were doing it. If you’re going to engage people in terms of stewardship and protecting natural spaces, boy, there has to be a big overhaul. You can’t talk about conservation without talking about people and difference and access. And making that connection is part of the big challenge.