African Americans in the Outdoors

“…I devised a self-theory that golden light and deep blue sky made me.  Sun filed my body as it seemed to fill dry California hills, and sky flowed in my veins.  Colored could only mean these things.”

Lauret Savoy, from her book, Trace: Memory, History, Race, And the American Landscape


Recently there has been a lot of talk about inclusion in the outdoors.  Related to inclusion is the idea that people of color and other minorities are less represented in the outdoors.  Inclusion is important and absolutely must be a part of the discussion of the outdoors going forward.  However, there is a long and striking history of African Americans in the outdoors.  African Americans have contributed to the natural sciences, exploration and outdoor recreation in ways not usually acknowledged.

I would argue that some of the elements of traditional African American and Afro-Caribbean culture give a benefit to African American outdoors people.  African American ways of seeing and interacting with ‘nature’ are neither indigenous nor wholly European and so are often marginalized in mainstream thought.

I’ve watched young boys and men fishing in the Caribbean.  In places like The Bahamas or Jamaica, fishing and hunting are recreational as well as a means of making a living.  Commercial fishing by locals is often a small scale affair, using spears and diving as well as nets and fish traps.  I’ve watched children standing on piers on gorgeous, blue Caribbean days fishing with lines, unaided by rod or reel.  Like using a lasso, the line is merely swung and thrown out into the sea.  A life of this type of fishing leaves ones hands hardened and scarred.  Pork from hunting is also a real dietary supplement, not just a sportsman’s trophy.

When I think of the Caribbean, I think of the hunters and fishermen I saw in Equatorial Guinea.  Small dugout canoes, sometimes with sails, sometimes without ply the waters of the small nation just off the west coast of Africa.  The men in the boats search for what I think were abalone, a food reminiscent of conch in the Caribbean.  Snares line trails frequented by hunters in Equatorial Guinea.  I was told by an old man that you must set one hundred snares to get enough food to fill your belly.  Old fishing nets and ropes washed up on beaches are often taken apart and delicately twisted by hand into new lines for snares.

I wonder how these things relate if at all to how my girlfriend learned to fish at a small pond in upstate New York from her African American father.

As it is fair to see similarities between white American and European cultures, it is true that some of African American and Afro-Caribbean culture is rooted in Africa.  Indeed, I feel that a closeness to the land based in an African familiarity with hunting, fishing, gathering and subsistence agriculture helped some African American resistance movements to succeed.  Examples are escaped slaves who lived in the Blue Mountains of Jamaica in their own self sufficient communities such as Nanny Town or the escaped slaves of Guyana who formed their own hybrid African-Native American communities in the rain forest (America in these cases being broader than the USA).  These are places which European settlers and explorers seemed to have a much harder time adapting to and surviving in than contemporary Africans.

African Americans have also been a big part of the American conservation movement.  The buffalo soldiers were African American soldiers named ‘buffalo’ soldiers by their Native American enemies in part because of their curly hair but also as a sign of begrudging respect.  The buffalo soldiers were paid $13 a month plus clothing, room and board.  Some western towns, including all black towns were founded by buffalo soldiers and now largely forgotten.  Buffalo soldiers were tough, efficient outdoorsmen and strong warriors.  It’s not too surprising that early in the history of national parks, when the military governed them, some parks were patrolled by buffalo soldiers.  Charles Young, the first African American superintendent of a National Park was stationed at Sequoia National Park.  Charles Young was at the time a Captain in the army (the army oversaw National Parks before the NPS) and the third African-American graduate of the United States Military Academy.  Stationed at Sequoia National Park, Young was able to get roads and trails built that previous managers had failed to complete.  With limited funding, working only in the summer Young and his men completed a wagon road to the Giant Forest, home of the world’s largest trees.  The wagon road, completed in one summer was more than had been accomplished in the previous three summers.  Young wrote a book detailing the cultural source of military power, arguing against at the time popular theories of the ‘fixity of racial character’.  In July 1917, Young was medically retired but raised to the rank of Colonel in recognition of his distinguished career.  Protesting retirement, Young made a 500 mile horseback ride from Wilberforce Ohio to Washington D.C. to demonstrate his fitness; in the end the retirement stood.  President Obama declared, Colonel Young Buffalo Soldiers National Monument.

There’s also the story of Holt Collier, the African American hunter that guided Teddy Roosevelt to bear bagging victory.  Collier was billed as the best bear hunter in the South, yet Roosevelt choosing him as a guide came at a time when racism was often unchallenged in America.  The first hunting trip Roosevelt made with Collier was the impetus of the creation of Teddy Bears.  It’s a story best viewed in light of the mores of Collier’s (and Roosevelt’s) times rather than the values of today.  Roosevelt was in Mississippi hunting the Louisiana Black Bear, a subspecies found only in the southern states.  Collier promised the president a bear no matter what.  In the end, Holt tied a bear to a tree and Roosevelt refused to shoot the animal, as it was beneath his sportsman’s conduct (Roosevelt instead killed the bear with a knife which was seen as an act of mercy at the time).

Roosevelt was suitably impressed with Collier’s superior tracking skills though and the next hunt Collier led him on ended up being successful.  Not only were three bears shot but also deer, squirrels and a wildcat.  Roosevelt gifted Holt Collier with a gun.

Holt Collier was born a slave and throughout his life was a confederate soldier, a cowboy and of course a professional hunter and guide.  Although Collier’s life was unquestionably rough and demanding, he lived to the age of 90 and died in August 1936 in Mississippi.

Today, Holt Collier National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi is the only National Wildlife Refuge named after an African American.  The wildlife refuge now is a protected home of the bears Collier once hunted.  Roosevelt told Collier he was the best hunter and guide he’d ever seen.  With the publicity of Roosevelt’s hunting trips and the high praise from our sportsman president, it’s not too far to say that Collier’s skill may have softened the bigotry of the time at least for a few.  As Minor Ferris Buchanan wrote in Holt Collier,

“Social ranks and taboos of caste and class were suspended on the hunt, especially in such interior and frontier regions as the Mississippi Delta. At least temporarily, a man’s skill and courage were the only criterion for acceptance. In this gentleman’s pursuit Holt Collier was able to earn the respect of others and establish his own reputation as a giant among men. He earned honor as a hunter and guide irrespective of race…In the Mississippi Delta and perhaps throughout the entire South, no hunter was equal in skill or courage to Holt Collier.”

In 1985, Bill Pinkney became the first African American to sail solo around the world. Close on his heels, in 1987 Teddy Seymour became the first African American to sail solo around the world East to West.  Solo sailing the world is an amazing endeavor requiring physical and mental strength and stamina to depths most of us have never plumbed within ourselves.  Seymour hints that it was never his strength or ability that could hold him back but sometimes racism could.  Seymour, reflecting on his life’s accomplishment told the Bay State Banner in June 1992,

“The easy part was sailing around the world…I’ve almost lost my life on many occasions…I’ve been through Vietnam, I’ve lived in L.A. where the cops hassled me just because I was a black man running down the street in a sweatsuit.”

Despite hardships, African Americans have been to both poles on exploration expeditions.  Matthew Henson was on Robert Peary’s 1909 expedition that claimed to have reached the geographic North Pole (although this is contentious).  Matthew Henson served as a navigator, tradesmen and a trader who learned Inuit language.  Peary counted Henson as his ‘first man’ on his Arctic expeditions.  Overall Henson went on 7 Arctic expeditions, was admitted as an honorary member of the Explorers Club, was awarded the Congressional Medal.  Henson also wrote a book, A Negro Explorer at the North Pole.  Recognition from the Explorer’s Club came late though.  Initially Peary was showered with accolade, the Explorer’s Club only recognized Henson when he was 70 years old, decades after he claimed to have co-discovered the North Pole with Peary.  In 1987, 32 years after Henson’s initial burial, President Regan ordered Matthew Henson and his wife’s remains moved to Arlington National Cemetery, where Peary and his wife were already buried.

George W. Gibbs went in the opposite direction of Henson, being the first African American on an expedition to Antarctica.  Gibbs was encouraged to apply for assignment in Antarctica and was among only 40 men chosen for the assignment out of 2,000 Navy applicants.  Gibbs helped establish US bases on Antarctica and capture Adelie Penguins for the Smithsonian Institute.  Gibbs kept a journal of the trip that was lost until after his death in 2000.  In later life, Gibbs became a leader in the Rochester Minnesota branch of the NAACP.  George Gibbs died at 84, on September 2nd, 2009, a rock point in the most northern area of Antarctica was named, Gibb’s Point in his honor.

The outdoor life for African Americans has involved a struggle for equality as so many aspects of black life in America.  There’s a beautiful canyon near Moab Utah.  A small stream trickles down the bottom of the desert canyon, clogged with a narrow riparian jungle.  Sandstone walls border the place and guard the lonely peace.  At the end of a short trail down the canyon you come into a place of bold sandstone arches, stretching above you.  Small trees and bushes huddle beneath the two arches which sometimes drip with water after a rare rain. The canyon near Moab is named Grandstaff Canyon, after William Grandstaff, a cowboy who ran cattle and prospected in the area with a Canadian trapper known now only as ‘Frenchie’.  When I first learned of the canyon, it was named ‘Negro Bill Canyon’.  William Grandstaff was of mixed race and before it was known as ‘Negro Bill’ his canyon was called ‘Nigger Bill’.  William Grandstaff fled the Moab area when he was accused of running bootleg liquor to Native Americans, a serious crime at the time.  Whether he was guilty or not, Grandstaff was wise to assume he would receive no fair trial on account of his race.  To save his life, William Grandstaff was forced to forfeit his beautiful home.  It’s not hard to imagine accusations arising just to keep a black man out of the Moab area.

According to Moab’s Wikipedia page, today its population is 90.35% white and only 0.29% African American.  Moab Utah is an important place in the history of the outdoors in America; it was the center of Ed Abbey’s book, Desert Solitaire and has long been known as a mecca for hiking, climbing, rafting, and mountain biking, even off-road jeeping.  Moab is actually a good reflection of the outdoor community in general.  Walk around a mountain town in Colorado or an REI store in Alaska, and you’ll find a very white world.  According to a survey by the National Park Service, only 13% of Black or African Americans surveyed named a park they visited in the last 2 years.  Of white (non-Hispanic) people surveyed, 36% visited National Parks.  Other minorities are also underrepresented in parks, there being a smaller percentage of minority visitors than their percentage of the overall US population.  According to an NPR report, 20% of National Park visitors in 2015 were minorities, despite the fact that they make up 40% of the overall population.

It’s easy to think, given the examples of African Americans in the outdoors I’ve already given that there isn’t an inclusion problem in the outdoors at all.  Looking closely at the problem helps clarify the issue.  Initially there seem to be two sides to the problem.  Bill Gwaltney a former employee of the National Park Service, a historian and a man of color himself told me that he’s heard African Americans say that national parks are places for ‘white people to do white things’.  So the first side to the problem may be a self-segregation problem.  African American culture may not encourage people to get outside and that can be a strong determining factor.  Kai Lightner, a black professional rock climber and star of the documentary ‘Young Guns’ said in an interview with Huffington Post,

“When I would tell [black] people that my sport was rock-climbing they would look at me funny, and ask ‘What is that?’ ‘We don’t do that’”.

Kai Lightner seems to be saying in the article that the push back he’s received hasn’t been from the climbing community.  It seems Lightner’s received more discouragement from pursuing climbing from the black community than from climbers.

Gwaltney went on to tell me that many African Americans have founded their own, exclusively black outdoor resorts.  Gwaltney also told me that African Americans are more likely to recreate outside on their own properties than on public land.  Hiking, fishing, hunting on your own ranch or farm, especially in the south is safer and less likely to involve unpleasant interactions than on public land.

I talked to Sophia Danenberg recently about the problem of inclusion in the outdoors.  Sophia says she’s a climber with average skills but she’s clearly spent time and a lot of effort in furthering her climbing aspirations.  A list of climbs on Sophia’s website include Kilimanjaro, Aconcagua, Everest and several less well known but impressive peaks summited.  Sophia told me that for her, climbing is a hobby, not a path towards spiritual enlightenment as it is for many.  It’s not that Sophia doesn’t have care for the environment; Sophia’s career is in keeping industry compliant with environmental regulation.  It’s that Sophia sees things differently.  Sophia tells me, if you climb Everest, you’re privileged.  The people in places like Nepal have had real struggles, those involving poverty and for her it seems, it cheapens real trouble to call climbing a spiritual exercise.  Sophia told me she has such a good life that she has to create her own problems, problems like climbing high peaks.

Sophia’s comment made me think a little differently.  For me, personally, the outdoors can be deeply spiritual.  I’ve also seen real poverty and hardship, especially abroad and I have a lot of empathy towards those less fortunate than myself.  Perhaps with the history of people of color in America, real adversity is too close for many to want to find other struggles like climbing, caving or through hiking.  Combing this thought with Gwaltney’s insight about recreating on private land creates a new image: imagine undertaking something as breath-takingly hard as Mt. Everest and being discriminated against at the same time.  Something else Sophia told me, climbers can be very friendly when you get to know them but they’re not always open and welcoming.  She told me climbers will protest that they treat everyone the same, she concedes this is true but they treat everyone in an unwelcome fashion.  If you treat everyone as unwelcome, it’s going to disproportionately affect people of color, because many of them may feel unsure to begin with.  People who’ve felt they belong their whole lives (i.e. white males) are more likely to overcome the obstacle of a Luke warm welcome than people who don’t feel they belong (i.e. people of color or women).


In Africa, many native peoples have been forced out in a process still ongoing to this day.  Justified as conservation, native peoples are forced off land that has traditionally been theirs.  Sometimes the effort is to weed out poachers and catches herdsmen as others as collateral damage.  Other times native people are targeted with the arrogant assumption that humans and ‘wild’ nature are separate.  The tragedy of this action is that native peoples can be some of the best stewards for the land.  Not only are native people on the land and can be some of the first witnesses of the encroachment of poachers, they can show a better way of living.  What is needed is a multifaceted view of nature, and ways to live in harmony with wildness.  If we’re going to create a way for humans to survive with the wild, we need as many view points and as much wisdom as we can find.

Whether it’s in Africa or the United States, excluding people or not embracing others only hurts those who love the wild.  Bill Gwaltney told me that what happens in Yellowstone should matter as much to a person of color as to a white person, it should be the shared concern of everyone.  There are millions who can be allies in preservation but not if they’re excluded.  The other side of the tragedy of course is that there are peoples cut off from the deep roots of the environment around them, of a shared home on the planet.  White people recreating in the outdoors can learn a lot from African Americans, see the world differently we just need to reach out and start the conversation.


1 Comment

  1. very good piece Zach so informative i never thought about if someone as not friendly it could because of your skin color i am soo proud to have such creativity and empathy in my sons


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