Take a look back at black history in America, and it doesn’t take much digging to find links to conservation. From civil rights icons like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. – who spoke out about urban environmental issues – to sustainably minded scientists like George Washington Carver, African Americans have played a key role in our environmental history. Their legacy lives on in our national parks, natural places and even legislation.
In honor of Black History Month, we’re highlighting six of our favorite African American conservation heroes, as well as their struggles, joys and achievements.
Did you know:
- John James Audubon, famed wildlife artist and the inspiration behind the National Audubon Society, was born in 1785 in the region today known as Haiti, the multi-racial son of a French sea captain and his Creole mistress. John had an early interest in nature and after moving to America, he went on to illustrate “Birds of America,” an iconic anthology of more than 435 species. On its website, the Audubon Society says: “he also had a deep appreciation and concern for conservation; in his later writings he sounded the alarm about destruction of birds and habitats. It is fitting that today we carry his name and legacy into the future.”
- “Planetwalker” is the nickname given to Dr. John Francis, an African-American environmentalist who boycotted motorized vehicles for 22 years, opting to walk to every destination. He was inspired to take this extreme action after witnessing the havoc of the 1971 oil spill in San Francisco Bay. Francis went on to traverse across the United States and adopted a vow of silence that lasted 17 years, during which time he earned a PhD.
- Lisa Perez Jackson was the first African American and fourth woman to hold the position of Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Jackson earned a degree in chemical engineering and was one of only a handful of women in her class at Princeton. Her career in the environmental field has spanned more than two decades and has included work reducing greenhouse gasses and fighting pollution. She has said: “It’s time to be clear about this misconception that environmental issues are incompatible with civil rights issues. The truth is that environmental issues are civil rights issues.”
- Buffalo Soldiers in the U.S. Army were some of the first defenders of our national parks, serving as rangers in Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon. They were instrumental in fighting fires, cracking down on poachers and clearing roads. One of the most notable Buffalo Soldiers was Capt. Charles Young, the third African American to graduate from West Point and the first African-American superintendent of a national park. The legacy of the Buffalo Soldiers lives on through Yosemite ranger Shelton Johnson, who created a website to tell their story.
- Dr. Robert Bullard is known as the father of the environmental justice movement, which is based on the belief that all people deserve equal environmental protection. His efforts began with Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Inc., a case in which an African American community in Houston rallied against the establishment of a landfill in their neighborhood. In his research, Bullard found toxic waste sites were often placed within black communities in Houston. He’s since gone on to become an honored activist, author and leader in environmental justice.
- Led by Booker T. Washington, the Tuskegee Institute was an early site of innovation in agriculture and sustainability. This can especially be seen in the work of George Washington Carver, who taught methods of crop rotation to improve soil that had been depleted by cotton. He advocated for alternating cotton with crops like the peanut – the product that ultimately earned him his fame. The goal was to teach self-sufficiency to students across the region.
Learn more about African Americans’ contributions to conservation here. Learn more about the Leaders in Environmental Action for the Future (LEAF) Program.
http://www.audubon.org/john-james-audubon, http://www.planetwalker.org/, http://www.blackpast.org/aah/lisa-perez-jackson-1962, http://www.nps.gov/yose/historyculture/buffalo-soldiers.htm, http://drrobertbullard.com/, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_D._Bullard, http://www.tuskegee.edu/about_us/history_and_mission.aspx, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/George_Washington_Carver
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