African-American history, herstory, and theirstory has a long and rich connection with the land and the environmental movement. From the days of slavery to Jim Crow and even now, African American women, men, and non-binary people have deep ties to the sacred earth and the relationship between the earth’s health and community wellbeing.
Enslaved Africans brought vast ecological knowledge to American plantations, teaching their captors rice cultivation, herbal medicine, and more. After emancipation and the plantation economy shifted to a sharecropping economy, the fate of African Americans remained tied to the land as former slaves rented small plots of land from white landowners in exchange for some of their crops. It wasn’t until the Great Migration of African Americans to the North, which reached a peak between 1916 and 1970 that Black communities transitioned from being agricultural and land-based to urban and industrialized communities. Before then, 90% of African Americans lived in the rural South.
As Jim Crow laws were spreading like fire throughout the South, African Americans went from being bound to the land to being segregated from it. All over the country, segregation laws separated Black people from local, state, and federal public beaches and parks. Popular federal parks like Shenendoah and the Great Smoky Mountains were segregated by race, with separate entrances, camping grounds, rest rooms, cabins, and picnic ground facilities. And, public work programs like the Civilian Conservation Camps— which planted three billion trees and served more than 800 parks— forced African American members to live in segregated camps with less resources than their white counterparts. As a lasting result of these discriminatory Jim Crow laws, Black people are less likely to visit national parks. According to National Park Service data, to this day less than 10% of visitors to national parks are African American.
Despite this blatant exclusion, our national park system would not have survived without African Americans, specifically because of the protection of Buffalo Soldiers. The all-Black regiments, formed after the Civil War, were some of the first American park rangers. According to National Park Service data, approximately 500 Buffalo Soldiers served in Yosemite National Park and nearby Sequoia National Park, doing everything from evicting poachers to extinguishing forest fires. Their contributions to protecting and preserving the land paved the way for generations of future Americans.
Throughout Black herstory, African American women like Harriet Tubman utilized their knowledge of the earth to fight for liberation. While Tubman was deliberately not taught how to read and write, her sophisticated reading of the stars, land, and waterways of the Chesapeake region allowed her to free thousands of enslaved people from captivity. And she wasn’t the only Black American who used natural knowledge to fight for liberation: The Underground Railroad, which ran from the deep South into Canada, was led by hundreds of brave survivalists like Tubman who shared their knowledge of the land to evade slave catchers, travel often inhospitable terrain at night, and survive in the American wilderness.
In addition to the many Black women and men who fought for environmental and climate justice, nonbinary and/or transgender people also contributed a vital chapter to our black environmental history. Unfortunately, our historical records of Black transgender and/or nonbinary environmental activists is lacking. We know that trans and nonbinary Black people have been engaged in environmental and climate justice from the beginning but their story (hence, theirstory) has yet to be fully documented. We are committed to including Black trans and nonbinary environmentalists in our work because race and gender – all genders – are inextricably linked. As black history, herstory, and theirstory month comes to a close and we reinvent ourselves for this coming year, we ask you to think about the black nonbinary and/or transgender people in your life, and how their contributions are adding to a legacy of activists, leaders, and revolutionaries whose contributions may have been silenced, but not forgotten.
As we celebrate Black history, herstory, and theirstory, we remember that being an environmentalist is not and was not exclusively for white people. Whether it was bringing agricultural expertise from Africa, preserving natural beauty on national parks, or leading enslaved people to freedom, African-American history is inseparable from American environmental history