Historical Perspective on Racism in the Outdoors and Looking Forward

Putting the continued fight for equity in the outdoors into historical context, and finding ways to move forward.

The Shenandoah National Park was one of many National Parks in the South that were segregated. More can be learned by reading this article from National Park Traveler "How The National Park Service Grappled With Segregation During The 20th Century."

Photo from the Shenandoah National Park/NPS archives.

Historical Background

One question we have repeatedly seen asked when discussing topics of inclusion is why we even need to have this conversation. Some, when hearing that Black people have been traditionally excluded, and are often still excluded, from outdoor recreation have a knee jerk reaction of saying, "The outdoors are open for all, why are we even talking about this, everyone can go to a trail!" To answer this question fully, assuming it's being asked in earnest and those asking really do have a willingness to learn, we have to look at history.

Here are some fast facts, stretching back to the time of slavery, that help put issues we are still struggling with today in context:

  • By 1860 slavery was abolished in much of the North, however the majority of Black people, both free and enslaved, still resided in the south.
  • As Professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. discusses in this article there is a myth that freed slaves moved North. Many people don't realize what an impossible task that would have been for most freed slaves, and it is important to keep in context that even after the civil war most did not have the means to pick up and move. Many freed slaves had no assets, were not paid fair wages, and were starting over not only with next to nothing, but while actively being discriminated against. Moving North was simply not an option for many, and even if it was, community connections and other factors also made moving difficult.
  • The majority of Black people in America are descended from slaves, and therefore to this day the majority of Black people reside in the south. Again, this is important to keep in context because that leads to the next point - most outdoor recreation opportunities were segregated in the south well into the 1960's officially, and unofficially for many years after.

What this history means in terms of outdoor recreation opportunities for Black people is: Up until very recently in our country the majority of African Americans were not allowed to access National Parks, local parks, pools, campgrounds, beaches, trails, or many other places the same way white Americans have always been able to.

A sign from a public swimming pool in Alabama declaring the pool as a "WHITE ONLY" area.

A sign from a public swimming pool in Alabama declaring the pool as a "WHITE ONLY" area.

One startling example of how this history plays out is with statistics on swimming and drowning. Black children are 3 - 5 times more likely to drown than white children, and nearly 70% of Black children self-reported that they have either no ability or very limited ability to swim. As this article discusses in depth these statistics directly relate back to the issues and history referenced above. Many municipal pools, public beaches, and other curated swimming experiences, especially in the south, were closed to Black people, full stop.

Places Black people were allowed to swim were often more dangerous places, like the rushing waters of the Mississippi River, and drowning was a frequent occurrence. Many people simply avoided swimming, because when swimming is dangerous and you have no other options, you just don't learn to swim. This history is recent, this is the history of our parents and grandparents, or for some of you it is your own history, and this is just one example of why outdoor recreation opportunities are still not equal to this day.

Wounds that have been cultivated over hundreds of years don’t heal overnight, even if we would like them to. There are things that white people simply don’t have to think about, and the privilege of that blindness too often grows into disbelief of the very real exclusion of Black people from the outdoor experiences that white people can simply take for granted. When the question is asked, “Why are we talking about this? Trails are open to everyone!” what is really being said is, “I’ve had the privilege of never having to think about, or experience, that exclusion, so I don’t believe it exists.” The Guardian published an article in 2018 interviewing Black hikers, letting them tell their stories in their own words, about what it is like to hike while Black. Listening to and believing Black voices is the most essential component of ever creating a truly integrated and equal society, and one place to start would be reading that article here.

Taking Action

As we said in our previous statement, these sobering issues can only start to be solved when we all agree to take meaningful action. American Trails vows to work to move the needle toward making everyone feel safe in our country’s outdoor spaces. Here are a few things we know we can do better, and we seek the input of our community on additional ways that we can succeed.

  • For our events and trainings we will actively seek out black leadership to speak, and we acknowledge black leaders have not always had a voice in such forums.
  • We will ensure that all Black people are compensated equally for their time to any other vendors, speakers, or presenters.
  • We will actively recruit trail training participants and scholarship recipients from the Black community.
  • We will work to ensure that our photos represent the diversity of our nation.

These are small steps, and they are just a place to start. Previously American Trails signed the Outdoor Industry CEO Diversity Pledge, and we will be encouraging all of our industry partners to do the same.

Outdoor Afro has been working working for 10 years as the place "Where Black People and Nature Meet"

Outdoor Afro has been working working for 10 years as the place "Where Black People and Nature Meet"

Who to Support

American Trails is an organization of mostly white voices, but there are many other organizations led by people of color who are working hard to address the deep racial imbalances in the outdoor recreation industry. These are the organizations that we are listening to, supporting, and working to use our platform to help amplify the voices of.

African American Nature & Parks Experience

“The conservation movement in this country is hurting for additional audiences as we fight the challenges ahead. Engaging communities of color out in nature only makes sense, as we are the faces currently missing from the conversation on conservation. Throughout the year we will hold various events that will encourage communities across the country to get out into our national, state, regional and local parks. We welcome the opportunity to partner with others.”

Outdoor Afro

“Outdoor Afro has become the nation’s leading, cutting edge network that celebrates and inspires Black connections and leadership in nature. We help people take better care of themselves, our communities, and our planet! Outdoor Afro is a national non-profit organization with leadership networks around the country. With nearly 80 leaders in 30 states from around the country, we connect thousands of people to outdoor 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!”

Unlikely Hikers

“Unlikely Hikers is a diverse and inclusive Instagram community featuring the underrepresented outdoorsperson. The outdoor industry and outdoors social media tend to display a very narrow definition of who is “outdoorsy” that isn’t representative of most of us. We are people of size, people of color, queer, trans and gender nonconforming. We are people with disabilities and people who utilize the outdoors to aid our mental health. We talk about access, politics and conservation while we honor the land and its Indigenous stewards. We don’t conflate these experiences, we explore and build community at their intersections. We all have a story! If you see yourself as an Unlikely Hiker, then you are. Welcome!”

Black Women’s Alliance

“Black Women's Alliance is a Denver-based community dedicated to cultivating a thriving sisterhood of Black women through facilitating events that inspire our growth, connection, and sense of adventure--inside and out. Through nature outings, contemplative movement and practice, trainings, workshops, and more, BWA celebrates the diverse beauty, uniqueness, power, and vulnerability of our whole selves.”

Black Reins Magazine

“Dubbed "The Premier Publication for Black Equestrians, Horsemen and Cowboys", Black Reins is notable for its role in chronicling the early days of the American Horsemen from its earliest years while infusing today's relevant black news, sports, fashion, history and social events.

Black Reins Magazine was created to spotlight the Black Horsemen/Equestrians and the rich history this country has because of their journey. The Black Cowboy played an integral role in shaping this country to what is today. Their rich culture, all too often forgotten, is still alive and strong in today's popular culture. Black Reins Magazine sheds light and represents the strong tradition of these heroes--both men and women--who have been left out of mainstream media--publications, novels, films and television.”

Greening Youth Foundation

"The Greening Youth Foundation (GYF), a woman and minority-founded and led nonprofit, works with youth and young adults to provide environmental and wellness education and pathways to green careers."

Black Outside

“With the knowledge that only 1% of Texas state park participants identify as Black/African-American, Black Outside, Inc was founded with the mission of expanded access, programming, and relevancy to both Black and Brown communities across Texas. We seek to not only diversify the outdoors but unleash a new generation of outdoor enthusiasts reflective of our country and state's beautiful diversity.”

Blackpackers

“Our mission is two-fold:

1. To provide gear, outdoor excursions and outdoor education for free or at subsidized cost

2. To connect participants with volunteer opportunites, internships, jobs, and post-secondary education resources to create pipeline from outdoor recreation to outdoor industry careers.

In these ways, we can create economic equity in outdoor recretion and attempt to attack the wealth gap in vulnerable communities.”

Black Girls Trekkin'

“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.”

Brown Girls Climb

“Brown Girls Climb is a small Women of Color owned and operated company with the mission to promote and increase visibility of diversity in climbing by establishing a community of climbers of color, encouraging leadership opportunities for self-identified women climbers of color, and by creating inclusive opportunities to climb and explore for underrepresented communities.”

Melanin Base Camp

“Welcome to Melanin Base Camp: your home base for diversity in outdoor adventure sports. Our purpose is to inspire you with weekly content from Black, Brown, Asian, Indigenous and Queer People of Color who love the outdoors. Join the movement and help us #diversifyoutdoors.”

Color Outside

“Color Outside helps women of color harness the power of the outdoors to create the JOY-filled, balanced lives they crave through coaching, workshops, & one-of-a-kind retreats.”

Outdoor Journal Tour

“The Outdoor Journal Tour, lovingly dubbed ODJT, is a community built for women to facilitate personal growth and alignment. We use a beautiful combination of physical activity, guided journaling and meditation to help women create this balance.

Women are SO amazing! And as natural nurturers, women have an innate desire to take care of everyone and everything around them. Indeed, the life giving and life-sustaining traits of women are a part of what makes women and feminine energy so vital to the human experience.”

The Black Outdoors

“No matter where you are in your journey to explore the outdoors, there's a path that may lead you to adventure, relaxation, beautiful sunrises, tranquil sunsets, quiet streams, roaring rapids, isolation, companionship, something new, or maybe your favorite destination. TheBlackOutdoors is here to support you every step of the way - through representation, advocacy for, and support of people of color engaging the natural world and taking advantage of all things planet Earth offers.”

Outward Bound Adventures

“Outward Bound Adventures (OBA) is the oldest non-profit in the nation created and dedicated to providing outdoor education, conservation and environmental learning expeditions for primarily low income, urban and rural youth and their families who would not otherwise have the opportunity to experience time spent in wild places and open spaces.

OBA focuses on serving the overlooked, underserved and avoided populations. While OBA did affiliate with the much larger Outward Bound; after two years the two organizations decided it was best to remain separate organizations and there is no affiliation between Outward Bound and OBA.

Approximately 800 to 1000 young people and their families take part in OBA activities each year on trips ranging from one-day trips to our local forests and monuments to 20-day expeditions in distant wilderness locations. During these trips, they are compassionately challenged physically, academically and emotionally to confront their self-imposed limitations and learn to expand their horizons. OBA trips are known for also bringing diversity to the nation's wilderness areas and encourage the long-term participation among ethnic minority youth in environmental careers and ecological and conservation activities.”

Published June 08, 2020

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