Outdoor Afro originates its second year of illustrated storytelling during Black History Month. For 2023, the organization collaborated with digital illustrator Dajah Callen to educate about one of the most well-organized networks by abolitionists to usher enslaved people out of the American South: the Underground Railroad. “Collaborating with Outdoor Afro for this Black History Month project was a natural fit since my work centers emotions and thoughts we sometimes find hard to put into words,” said Callen. “I also enjoy drawing nature.” Virtually visit trails and tours identified by the National Park Service’s National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom program and periodically toured by local Outdoor Afro networks throughout each year.
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Callen’s illustrations depict the freedom train’s allegorical “conductors” who strategically mapped out and commonly led a matrix of “stations” from 1810 to 1850. These stations guided runaways (approximately 100,000) into liberation and provided temporary care. Some stations were shipyards. Others were safe houses (churches, barns, businesses). Modes of transportation used included boats, wagons, and freedom by foot. Harriet Tubman served as one of the railroad’s distinguished conductors. She learned about the secret communications that happened on trade routes and applied the course knowledge. Her leadership as an outdoor navigator and wilderness survival expert earned her the Biblical title of “Black Moses.”
She, along with fellow conductors, operated canals, trails, bays, rivers, ferries, and forests as routes to help enslaved people escape. Tubman is known for guiding more than 13 trips to the South. It’s estimated she freed more than 70 enslaved people, including family and friends. In the spirit of the Underground Railroad’s national reach and mission, Outdoor Afro selects and trains a network of more than 100 volunteer leaders who lead their neighborhoods in nature. With networks in 60 cities and up to 32 states throughout the United States, volunteer leaders guide more than 60,000 people nationwide annually to explore land, water, and wildlife.
Outdoor Afro volunteer leaders help reintroduce local Black history stories like the Underground Railroad. Volunteer leaders serve as community “conductors” while guiding monthly outdoor activities. In addition to scheduling and hosting neighborhood historical tours, leaders use social media to connect and invite community participants to multigenerational experiences in nature. These backyard activations include biking, gardening, kayaking, fishing, bird watching, swimming, and other requested community adventures.
Outdoor Afro National Program Director Chaya Harris sees the digital storytelling series as magnifying Black history in nature, showing that Black people were – and still are – skilled communicators, navigators, merchants, entrepreneurs, farmers, craftspeople, and more: “Outdoor Afro’s networks often take community participants to modern-day tours and trails connected to the Underground Railroad,” said Chaya Harris. “By the end of these historical visits with our network leaders and participants, we’re reminded that a lot of thought, planning, and people went into this ongoing journey toward freedom.”
ABOUT OUTDOOR AFRO: Outdoor Afro is a national not-for-profit organization that celebrates and inspires Black connections and leadership in nature. What started as a kitchen table blog by Founder and CEO Rue Mapp in 2009 has since grown into a cutting-edge nationwide movement with 100-plus volunteer leaders in 60 cities with network participation reaching more than 60,000 people. Outdoor Afro reconnects Black people with the outdoors through outdoor education, recreation, and conservation. Follow Outdoor Afro at outdoorafro.org and @outdoorafro today.