Celebrating Black History Month | Black Pioneers and Outdoorspeople throughout US History
At Outdoor Womxn, we want to celebrate this Black History Month by highlighting Black stories in the outdoors, and continuing to uplift and be allies to the Black community. As we all recall from our own experiences in the outdoors, it’s not hard to recognize the lack of diversity and inclusion we have felt in these spaces. This stems from hundreds of years of symbolic and institutionalized messages aimed at the Black community indicating that the outdoors is a space for white folk. It is important to recognize and examine this, as it was not long ago that the National Parks were deemed a place exclusively for Americans of Anglosaxon descent, or white only public recreation areas were in use.
Black pioneers and early outdoorsmen and women have played an integral role in creating an outdoor space and community that fails to be recognized even after multiple google searches and continuous scrolling. This is not because they did not exist in the outdoors, rather because images and stories of John Muir and the like overrode the triumphs of Blacks in the outdoor community. We want to remember these biases as we highlight Black stories so that we are consciously and intentionally changing what the outdoor community has been presented as, and move forward to inclusivity and outdoor equity.
Mary Fields was enslaved in Tennessee in the 1830, living as a slave until the end of the Civil War. Though there are little records of the lives of enslaved people, we know Mary made a living working in a convent until 1885, where she relocated to a mission in Montana. Mary worked to garden and hunt to feed the 150 people living on the mission, and refused wages whilst doing so. An important aspect to Mary’s identity was her refusal to adhere to gender norms at the time, wearing men's clothing and performing mens labor. She also resisted racial stereotypes, as she refused work typically given to Black women. In 1895 Mary received a contract to be a Star Route Carrier for the United States Post Office department. She is remembered for never missing a day of work, enduring harsh weather conditions and thieves on the routes, as well as delivering mail by foot. Mary Fields was the first Black Woman to receive a Star Route contract from the United States Post Office Department.
Charles Young was born into slavery on March 12, 1864 in Kentucky. At an early age, his parents moved him into the center of abolitionism, Ohio, where Charles would begin his academic career. He graduated with honors and scored second highest on the entrance exam at United States Military Academy at West Point, where he was not admitted until the candidate ahead of him dropped out. Charles was the third African American to graduate from West Point. He became a military leader, mentored other Black military leaders, and made advancements in education for military education in America. In 1903 Young became the first Black national park Superintendent as his troops were to maintain Sequoia National Park. He and his troops were unprecedentedly able to construct trails, roads, and included local townspeople in his efforts to maintain the national park.
Hazel M. Johnson
Hazel M. Johnson is widely recognized as the “Mother of the Environmental Justice Movement” as she worked to protect her community from the 1970’s until her death. When she moved to Altgeld Gardens, a housing project on the South Side of Chicago, she discovered that her community had the highest cancer rate in Chicago. Hazel took matters into her own hands, beginning research on the number of respiratory illnesses in children, high cancer rates, and even the early death of her own husband. She founded People for Community Recovery (PCR), a non profit that is still alive today, which advocated for her community and necessary environmental repairs.The PCR came to find that Altgeld Gardens was knowingly built on an area with 50 landfills, hazardous waste sites, and no water or sewer lines. Hazel advocated at community meetings, and held the government and businesses responsible for the discrimination that marginalized communities like Altgeld Gardens face. Her efforts expanded largely outside of her local crisis, as she demanded for national environmental protection programs, and taught others the importance of recognizing the connection between their health and the environment.
Sophia Danenberg was born in 1972 to a black father and Japanese mother, and spent her early life succeeding in academia and earning degrees from Harvard. After being persuaded to try rock climbing by a friend in 1999, Sophia became obsessed with mountaineering. In 2006, after having already scaled Mount Rainier, Kilimanjaro, and McKinley, she became the first Black woman, and second person of African descent to scale Mount Everest. She completed this feat while suffering from bronchitis, frostbite, and an impaired oxygen mask. She recalled that she had rarely seen members of the Black community while mountaineering, and actively works to create spaces for climbers of color.
To be further informed about and support Black communities, check out these womxn owned outdoor organizations:
@blackgirlssurf “Today, Black Girls Surf is an international non-profit organisation that spans across countries and continents; providing valuable training experience, youth exchange opportunities, video production, educational development, casting opportunities, mentorship and coaching, surf therapy, and competition assistance.”
@blackgirlshike_ “Black Girls Hike highlights and presents black women and POC in nature through outdoor adventures. While diversifying outdoors and exposing/ reconnecting BIPOC with the all that nature has to offer, we use the power of storytelling and experience to seek outside adventures in all areas of the world. We aim to create an inclusive community of outdoor enthusiasts that shares our love of travel, nature, and the outdoors.”
@blackgirlstrekkin “Black Girls Trekkin’ is a group, created by co-founders Tiffany and Michelle, for women of color who choose to opt outside. Through our passion, we’re inspiring and empowering black women to spend time outdoors, appreciate nature, and protect it. We hope to build a community that will show the world that women of color are a strong and present force in
the outdoors. Join us on one of our Los Angeles group events as we hike, climb, run and embrace the challenges that the outdoors has to offer us.”
@outdoorafro “Outdoor Afro has become the nation’s leading, cutting edge network that celebrates and inspires Black connections and leadership in nature. We are a national not for profit organization with leadership networks around the country. With more than 100 leaders in 56 cities around the country, we connect thousands of people to nature experiences, who are changing the face of conservation. So come out in nature with us, or be a partner to help us grow our work so that we can help lead the way for inclusion in outdoor recreation, nature, and conservation for all!”
There is room for everyone in the outdoors, yet there is still work to be done to adequately support Black members of this community. Follow @outdoorwomxn on Instagram to see how we’re dedicated to promoting outdoor equity, challenging other organizations and followers to do the same, and hear your feedback on how we can do better.