In honor of Black History Month, we celebrate Black American trailblazers in conservation. These dedicated wildlife champions combined their enthusiasm for conservation with the tenacity to shatter through historical barriers, becoming leading voices in their field. These are just a few of the Black Americans who have helped make an impact for conservation through modern history and today.
Growing up in the segregated South in the mid-1960s, Dr. Mamie Parker was one of the first Black children to be integrated into an all-White public school in Arkansas. In the same bold spirit, Dr. Parker grew up to be a conservation pioneer and continued to transcend many barriers in her career. At a time when the space was predominantly White and male, she became a distinguished fisheries biologist and the first Black woman to serve in leadership roles in the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Now retired from public service, Dr. Parker continues her work by inspiring schoolchildren to pursue studies in natural sciences and by mentoring the next generation of diverse conservation leaders.
“At this point in life, I have learned more about showing gratitude by giving back. This includes work to encourage others to help us address the climate crisis, particularly in vulnerable and underserved communities, by looking for opportunities to make a profound impact on the lives of women and diverse employees in conservation by working harder on diversity, inclusion, justice and equity.” – Dr. Mamie Parker, shared in Conservation History: Women in Conservation
Since the first national park in 1872, natural spaces have been largely out of reach for most Black Americans. A long history of direct segregation and restrictive codes created a sense of exclusion that still endures today. Whether from economic limitations, imposed cultural stereotypes, or anxieties about entering precarious and unsafe situations, Black Americans remain the most dramatically underrepresented visitors in outdoor and natural spaces.
Connecting the Black community with nature is precisely what Rue Mapp set out to achieve with her national nonprofit organization, Outdoor Afro. Through this organization, she is pioneering equitable environmental education and reclaiming a cultural connection to nature. Outdoor Afro has already drawn tens of thousands of Black Americans across the US to experience nature through hiking, kayaking, and camping. Mapp also seeks to diversify the face of conservation stewardship by promoting pathways for next-generation Black leaders to represent land, wildlife, and waterways management. Democratizing environmental education continues to be Mapp’s mission.
“The trees don’t know what color I am. The birds don’t know what gender is. The flowers don’t know how much money I have in my bank account. I think we can rely on nature to be the equalizer for us so we can shed that weight.” – Rue Mapp shared in a 2018 interview
In response to a recent instance of racism against a Black birdwatcher at Central Park and series of racial killings of unarmed Black Americans by civilians and police, a coalition of emerging Black conservationists, scientists, and naturalists formed Black Birders Week in May 2020. The movement aims to normalize diversity, promote inclusion in public and natural spaces, celebrate Black birders, and expose the challenges they face.
“For far too long, Black people in the United States have been shown that outdoor exploration activities such as birding are not for us—whether it be because of the way the media chooses to present who is the ‘outdoorsy’ type or the racism experienced by Black people when we do explore the outdoors, as we saw recently in Central Park. Well, we’ve decided to change that narrative.” – Corina Newsome, Black Birders Week co-organizer
In the alpine forests of the Lake Tahoe basin, Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant researches black bear ecology. In this part of the Sierra Nevada mountain range, she monitors the health of this keystone species, an indicator of the overall health of its ecosystem. She also works to understand human-wildlife conflict and develops solutions that allow black bears and people to coexist. As a large carnivore ecologist, Dr. Wynn-Grant’s work also takes her to the Northern Great Plains, where she investigates the movement of grizzly bear populations and identifies barriers in their migration to the American Prairie Reserve.
Growing up in a city and having little exposure to nature except through nature programs on television, Dr. Wynn Grant strives to expose underrepresented and Black students to nature and conservation studies.
“My work is about saving animals from extinction, and so many other scientists are also trying to save the planet so we can survive. We don’t have time to be caught up in stereotypes or barriers. Right now we have a bunch of people who aren’t involved because of barriers they face. That makes no sense. For such a critical mission, we need to make sure that everyone has the opportunity to help solve these problems.” – Dr. Rae Wynn-Grant, in a National Geographic interview
These are just a few of the courageous Black Americans who are transforming conservation, wilderness preservation, and environmental education in the U.S. By breaking down barriers that historically left them out, these inspiring pioneers are propelling Black inclusion in conservation, the exploration of natural spaces, and solving the environmental crises that we all face.