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Celebrating Black Naturalists - Forest News

Forest News is a blog-style collection of articles from middle level teacher, Mr. Will Hudson, exploring nature education, nature play, and our outdoor and science curriculum.


In recognition of Black History Month, I would like to spotlight and celebrate some names, organizations, and publications that represent the depth and breadth of contributions by Black Americans to our collective love, understanding, and care for the natural world.

Historically, and to this day, the environmental movement, from nature connection to the environmental sciences is dominated by predominantly white, and male, voices. The reality, as is so often the case, is far different - Black and African American naturalists and environmentalists abound. Past and present, we owe a debt to their contributions, many which have been intentionally obscured and left unrecognized, all of which have inspired and taught us more about the natural world and our place in it.

(Note - all "green text" is hyperlinked to further reading, organizations, or resources.)


Past Naturalists In preparing for this newsletter, I had to do some research. Of course, George Washington Carver is known to us all, but I wish I could say I was familiar with the work of historical Black and African American naturalists such as Solomon Brown, the first African American employee of the Smithsonian Institution, and Captain Charles Young, the first Black national park superintendent in 1903. Through a new online exhibit, entitled “The Enslaved Naturalist” , I learned about York, who made significant and unrecognized contributions to the Lewis and Clark expedition, and played a prominent role in expanding our (non-indigenous) geographic and ecological understanding of the continent. The “stories of self-determination and perseverance” by the residents of Black Walden, such as Zilpa White, Brister Freeman, and Thomas and Jenny Dugan who instructed and inspired the life and writings of Henry David Thoreau were also new to me. The exhibit also positions Harriet Tubman as a great naturalist who possessed “tremendous natural literacies” and knowledge of geography, bird language, plant medicine, and the night sky.


Hear from Ranger Angela Crenshaw of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park as she

speaks to "African American Erasure" from public natural spaces and the larger naturalist narrative.


Contemporary Naturalists

In researching contemporary Black and African American naturalists, the greatest challenge was in trying to decide who to include. There is an overwhelming amount of work being done by so many individuals and organizations.

As a birder of the white, middle-aged variety that ornithologist and poet Dr. Drew Lanham refers to in his essay, “Birding While Black”, I have been fortunate to know his work for a while now. I highly recommend both his memoir, “The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affair with Nature,” and mix of poetry and prose in “Sparrow Envy: Field Guide to Birds and Lesser Beasts.”

New to me was another ornithologist, John Robinson. Not only is he author of many books, including “Birding for Everyone: Encouraging People of Color to Become Birdwatchers”, Mr. Robinson is like a birding superhero with 20/15 vision and can "hear a birdsong once and memorize it for life.”

I have recently learned about the incredible story of John Francis, the founder of the environmental awareness organization “Planetwalk”. John witnessed an oil spill in San Francisco Bay in 1971 and shortly thereafter gave up all motorized transportation and began walking everywhere he went. He has trekked all over the United States and the world. He even went on to take a vow of silence for 17 years. In 1991 was appointed the United Nations Environment Program’s Goodwill Ambassador to the World’s Grassroots Communities.

I am also inspired by the work of Majora Carter and Rue Mapp.

Marjora Carter’s TED Talk, “Greening the Ghetto” was one of the first 6 TED talks published online. Her quote, “Nobody should have to move out of their neighborhood to find a better one,” posted on the walls of the Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C., and also the title of her book sums up her work of developing “the vision and strategies for restorative economic development projects.”

Rue Mapp is the founder of OutdoorAfro, whose mission is to “celebrate and inspire Black connections and leadership in nature,” and has a network and meetups here in Chicago. Rue has also recently published the book, “Nature Swagger: Stories and Joy of Black Joy in the Outdoors”, which is also available at the Book Table in Oak Park.

Aaannndd…I also did not know that President Barack Obama preserved the most natural habitats of any U.S. president “including marine ecosystems and over four million acres of land, for a total of 22 new parks in the National Park system.” I’m a fan of all these things, so thank you Mr. President!


Leaders Close to Home

We are fortunate here in the Chicagoland area to have so many Black and African American naturalists and environmentalists working to improve the quality of our natural systems and communities. The unfortunate circumstance is that the crux of much of this work is due to years of environmental degradation and racism, which impacts the most marginalized and vulnerable of our communities, a reality that plays out across our globe.

Hazel M. Johnson, the “mother of the environmental justice movement” was a driving force here in Chicago. After losing her husband to cancer, and learning of the high rate of lung conditions in her southside Altgeld Gardens neighborhood, she discovered that her community had been built over an industrial waste dump. Ms. Johnson formed the People for Community Recovery organization, co-created the 17 Principles of Environmental Justice, and was present for the signing of Executive Order 12898: Federal Actions to Address Environmental Justice in Minority Populations and Low-Income Populations. An article from Good Black News just published today shares more about the life and impact of Hazel. M Johnson.

Another Chicago environmentalist and activist is Naomi Davis. Ms. Davis is the founder and CEO of the organization Blacks in Green. Blacks in Green is a community development organization based in Woodlawn whose mission is to create wealth and the overall health within Black communities by focusing on sustainability and leveraging the emerging green economy to create a “City of Villages, where every household can walk-to-work, walk-to-shop, walk-to-learn, and walk-to-play”. Naomi Davis and her organization also helped pass the Illinois Climate and Equitable Jobs Act in 2021.

And finally, no newsletter would be complete without a shoutout to the Forest Preserve District of Cook County. Over the years, the FPDCC has made strides in expanding access and opportunities for individuals from all communities and backgrounds to take advantage of what the preserves have to offer. One of my first observations as I began exploring the forest preserves years ago was that it was basically full of white people. I can’t say this was a surprise, but it was unsettling. It was discouraging to think that, with all the privilege I carry and enjoy on a day to day basis, these forests and trails were yet another enclave for Whiteness.

Therefore, I would like to celebrate the leadership of Toni Preckwinkle and Arnold Randall. In addition to being the first Black woman to be elected to the Cook County Board of Commissioners, President Preckwinkle is also president of the Forest Preserves of Cook County and responsible for appointing Mr. Randall to the position of General Superintendent.

Nominated one of Crain's 2021 Notable Black Leaders and Executives in Chicago, since 2010 Mr. Randall has been a transformative leader for the forest preserves. One of his many accomplishments is the creation of the Next Century Conservation Plan, with one of its key goals being to "invite, excite and engage diverse visitors from all walks of life" and to "make the preserves accessible to all."


This has been a small sample of the many Black and African American naturalists and organizations that are creating paths towards a greener future for all. Here are some links I found useful if you would like to learn more:

The local, grassroots organizations mentioned in the blog post above benefit greatly from donations and public support. Please follow the links below to their donation pages if you would care to make a contribution:

People for Community Recovery - Support

Blacks in Green - Support

Outdoor Afro - Support


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