But outdoor engagement for many African Americans was still happening in spite of these barriers, especially in places like the south. Leafing through the pages of my own family photos, my folks and other relatives are pictured outdoors and engaged in all sorts of recreational activities over the years, but the scene was most often a picnic on private land; backyards, or other neighborhood settings — not at a National Park. For example, American Beach in Florida has historically been about celebrating family. Today, some of the community’s original families still gather here for vacations.
“Camping began in the nineteenth century as an elite form of pilgrimage to the wild, but the arrival of inexpensive automobiles in the early twentieth century greatly expanded camping’s social diversity. The change was not universally embraced, especially when African Americans were involved, and the issue came to a head during the 1930s after two racially segregated national parks were opened in southern states. As complaints flowed in, William J. Trent, Jr., became adviser for Negro affairs to Interior Secretary Harold L. Ickes. He had no special interest in the outdoors or national parks, but Trent championed increased African American access to the parks and an end to discrimination in them. NPS leadership resisted Trent’s efforts until Secretary Ickes ordered them to create one nonsegregated demonstration area in Shenandoah National Park in 1939. The policy was extended to other areas in 1941 and the next year, with World War II shifting into high gear, campground and other forms of segregation were ended throughout the park system.”
Today we each have an important opportunity to make a difference related to who engages with our natural and public spaces. There is a monumental effort happening at a national level and across many organizations to reconnect all Americans to the outdoors not seen since Roosevelt. Since my trip to Washington DC for the America’s Great Outdoors Conference last spring, senior White House Officials have traveled all over the country hosting listening sessions to collect inspired ideas from people of all walks of life to map out ways to connect more Americans to the outdoors. The data collected will be presented to President Obama in a report due in November of this year. And even if you cannot make one of the upcoming listening sessions in a town near you, please make sure to add your ideas to the official AGO website.
Outdoor Afro Project: Ask your parents or grandparents how they engaged with natural spaces while growing up, especially if they lived during the pre-Civil Rights era. Post your findings here in the comments. You may also mail in photos to be featured in a follow-up blog post.
Read: Frank and Audrey Peterman’s book, Legacy on the Land, about the history of the National Parks and people of color.