Booker_T_Washington_retouched_flattened-cropTake 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:

  1. 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.”
  2. 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.
  3. 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.”
  4. 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.
  5. 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.
  6. 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.




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  1. What a wonderful and educational tool this is. I’ve learned so much. Well written and informative.

  2. Thank you so much for this! especially the information about Audubon. I definitely didn’t know that! GREAT to know

  3. Hi Katherine. Good stuff; thanks! I’m thrown off by the statement that Audubon was born of a Creole woman. The site you list as reference says she was French. I’d love to read more about this if you can direct me to the right place. Thanks!

  4. The “Buffalo Soldiers” took part in the dispossession of indigenous peoples. They participated in genocide, and were among the first to kill off large quantities of buffalo. That some of them later took government jobs as caretakers of national parks hardly makes them “heroes.” You should be more selective in who you consider “heroes.”

    1. The Buffalo Soldiers who served in the national parks are conservation heroes. How could they not be? They protected Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks before the National Park Service was created. These soldiers did not take “government jobs as caretakers of national parks.” They were assigned to the parks AS soldiers of the Ninth Cavalry. The U.S. Army ran Yellowstone, Yosemite, and Sequoia National Parks in the late 19th century. The Buffalo Soldiers were responsible for building the first trail to the top of Mt. Whitney in Sequoia National Park. At the turn of the last century, Mt. Whitney was the highest mountain in the United States. They also built the first wagon road into Sequoia’s Giant Forest, and an arboretum in Yosemite that today is considered to be the first museum in the national park system. They were park rangers before the term was even coined. That’s what makes them conservation heroes. Did they dispossess indigenous people? Yes. Did they participate in genocide? Yes. BUT, the Buffalo Soldiers were themselves the descendants of indigenous people from Africa who were dispossessed of their land and country. Some had Native American ancestry as a direct result of Slavery, particularly among the Cherokee and Creek Nations, and nearly ALL of them had ancestors that had survived the Atlantic Slave Trade which resulted in the deaths of millions of Africans. Just because the Buffalo Soldiers are not “heroic” to some, does not mean that they weren’t heroic figures to African Americans who lived in the 19th century, and aren’t heroic figures to African Americans today. None other than Booker T. Washington once referred to these troops as the “standard bearers of the race”. It wasn’t an easy climb “up from slavery”. It was dirty, nasty, and people were killed, but we need to be careful about casting blame on individuals who were themselves victims and not pointing the finger at the power structure here in the United States that made it “easier” for disenfranchised “colored” men to enlist in the Army than to open a business. Some enlisted in the Army because it was safer to be a soldier on the Great Plains than a sharecropper in Mississippi. Many of these soldiers enlisted for economic reasons, and some enlisted in order to serve a country that had not yet granted them the status of full citizenship. At the turn of the last century, African Americans were being lynched in the South on a daily basis for the slightest transgression.These men enlisted to prove that they were worthy of being called men. Don’t take my word for it, you can read it in their letters. Many of them could write specifically because the Army taught them how to read and write. This is not an excuse. This is history.

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