Black, Indigenous, and people of color have enjoyed outdoor recreation throughout the history of the United States and the creation of the National Parks, and before colonization amongst Indigenous groups native to this continent. This information, however, is often disregarded and ignored when learning about the history of outdoor recreation in the United States. This section of the project focuses on past and present outdoor recreationists of color who have accomplished milestones for the outdoor recreationist community. From the discovery of well-known caverns in Mammoth Caves to the first Mexican to hike the Pacific Crest Trail without ever seeing snow prior to her trek, their stories deserve more recognition and exposure. You’ll find that all of the historical figures mentioned here are associated with the National Parks Service, showing the influence the NPS has had, and continues to have, on BIPOC access to the outdoors. Outside of government and military programs, we don’t know much about the ways BIPOC have enjoyed nature for much of U.S. history, however, that is beginning to change through more recent accomplishments by BIPOC outdoor recreationists and the work of nonprofit organizations with a mission to change the narrative of what the outdoors looks like, and who it is for. While much of this is admirable it is also important to recognize that through the development of the NPS, specifically, all-Black regiments known as the Buffalo Soldiers were involved in the displacement of Native Americans through the military occupation of stolen land (Salter & Bunch III).
Mining a variety of sources, this section aims to help make the stories of these BIPOC figures in the outdoors more well-known. Sources include website articles, such as Edward James Mills’ National Geographic article on the presence of BIPOC in the creation of the National Parks and others through first-hand commentary on their experience, such as Heather Diaz’s blog posts. The creation of the United States National Parks System, and the bustling of outdoor recreation that occurs within it, is often credited to figures such as Woodrow Wilson and Theodore Roosevelt. Yet, the unknown supporters of America’s best idea consisted of many BIPOC figures, including Charles Young, Turkiya Lowe, and the Buffalo Soldiers. Here are their stories.
BIPOC Support in The Creation of The National Parks Service
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Stephen Bishop, a Black man who was enslaved at the time, discovered what is known today as Mammoth Caves in Kentucky in 1838 and drafted the first maps locating many of its caverns and geographical features (Mills). He dedicated his life to exploring and guiding tours throughout the caves, becoming a very well-known tour guide by Mammoth Cave visitors (National Parks Service). Bishop initially arrived at Mammoth Caves after his owner, and biological father, Roger Brucker, purchased the caves.
Bishop supported significant discoveries throughout the 412 miles of caves and popularized the site through his memorable tours, but his successful contributions were shadowed by his enslavement. Comments made by tourists praised Bishop for his skills as an educated tour guide but were accompanied by racist comments related to his looks and skin color. Many reactions also implied surprise for the tour guides’ ample knowledge of the site, many of them Black men, even though they were well-established explorers and researchers of the caves. Bishop’s accomplishments deserve endless recognition, but it is important to acknowledge that his work, which required extreme physical labor and dangerous conditions, occurred through the structure of slavery (Lanzendorfer). This raises questions, such as would white explorers with a similar skillset as Bishop undertake such a dangerous and demanding task, or be expected to do so? How would have Bishop been treated differently had he not been enslaved during his course of discoveries?
Lancelot Jones, a Black man, used his ownership of property that was passed down to him from his father on Florida’s Biscayne Bay to fight for the preservation of the land during development initiatives for a hotel resort. Jones’ efforts helped Biscayne Bay become a national park in 1980 through his decision to sell the land to the U.S. government rather than a huge corporation. Jones also provided guided fishing tours for visitors of the bay (Mills). The Biscayne National Park has named the second Monday in October Lancelot Jones Day, however, there is no acknowledgment of him on the Florida National Parks Association website, which has an entire section on ‘Geography and History’ of the park (“Lancelot Jones; Soul of an Ecological Jewel, Learn About Biscayne Park”). Reference to the Jones family history and association with the park is offered on the National Parks Service pages dedicated to Biscayne National Park (“The Joneses of Porgy Key: The Early Years”). Jones’s dedication to preserving the Biscayne Bay and his extraordinary knowledge of the area and its biodiversity are why the shores were protected from development. The park protects thousands of plants and, 600 fish species, and various endangered species throughout its four ecosystems (“Biscayne National Park”).
The Buffalo Soldiers were all-Black regiments established in 1866 that became one of the National Park Service’s first rangers in places like Yosemite and Sequoia (Mills). Their tasks included helping in the development of roads and trails, monitoring natural areas for wildlife protection, and pushing out Native Americans through the military occupation of stolen lands (Salter & Bunch III). The role Buffalo Soldiers played in the development of the National Parks, while simultaneously perpetuating colonial ideals through military services, shows the complex relationship these men had with the U.S. government, public lands, and Native Americans. The positionality of the Buffalo Soldiers in being tasked with dangerous battles against fellow minority communities was likely an intentional move by the U.S. military during their westward expansion and should be recognized when discussing the colonial acts of the Buffalo Soldiers. A significant moment in the history of African Americans in the outdoors, the Buffalo Soldiers hold both honor and complexities.
Civilian Conservation Corps
The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) was a key program in the establishment and maintenance of the United States’ public lands, and many Black and Indigenous men became involved shortly after its creation. The CCC was established in 1933 as a government work relief program for young men to voluntarily join during the Great Depression, providing services to the United States’ public lands, forests, and parks. Existing for just under ten years and ending at the start of World War II, CCC included about 3 million men, many of whom then transitioned into the military. While the majority of the CCC members were white, there were around 200,000 Black men and 80,000 Indigenous men in the program (McNeil). The significantly lower numbers of Black and Indigenous volunteers were not because they did not want to be involved in outdoor management, but rather because the CCC discouraged non-whites from enlisting, and in certain states, such as Georgia, the limit for Black members was set at 10% of the total program within said state. Housing for Black CCC members was secluded from other lodging and those included in majority-white programs faced other various forms of discrimination and racism. During the 1930s, when CCC was established, Black men enlisted in the program would not have even been able to use many of the public lands they worked on due to segregation laws (Toney). The Native American camps were separate from all other CCC groups, focusing specifically on projects within reservations, such as the construction of transportation, water development, and erosion control (Neatrour).
It is important to acknowledge that both the CCC and the Buffalo Soldiers regiment were one of the few entryways into outdoor recreation for BIPOC, and mainly only for Black men. Both programs required physical labor and military work to be performed by members and in these conditions racism and discrimination were experienced by many. While experiencing such unjust conditions and providing immense support towards the creation of the NPS, many still did not have access to the solitude and peace of the National Parks, as advertised by the NPS, which encouraged the already forming racial gap in access to parks that continues today (“Brief History of the National Parks”).
Charles Young, a member of the Buffalo Soldiers, became the superintendent of Sequoia National Park in 1903 as the first Black person to hold that position (Mills). With previous military experience and education at West Point, Young went on to become a well-respected military Colonel (National Parks Service). Born into slavery in 1864, Young is a significant figure in Black History for his remarkable military career and determination to protect the newly formed National Parks as a resource for all to enjoy. Under Young’s leadership, a road was constructed throughout Sequoia National Park that ran through around 2 miles of the park for easy visitor access (Wetzel).
“A journey through this park and the Sierra Forest Reserve to the Mount Whitney country will convince even the least thoughtful man of the needfulness of preserving these mountains just as they are” – Charles Young (Wetzel)
Robert G. Stanton
Robert G. Stanton was the first Black director of the National Park Service from 1988 through 2001. His career with the NPS began in 1962 when he became one of the first Black rangers at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Stanton would later become the second Black superintendent of a national park, following in Charles Young’s footsteps. He also supervised national monuments in Washington, D.C., including the home of abolitionist Frederick Douglass, which is now a National Historic Site (Mills). In his position as director of the NPS, Stanton advocated for increased resources related to the contributions of BIPOC communities throughout the United States public lands and ecosystems and encouraged the establishment of more historical sites in urban areas to accurately reflect the history of this country (Strassman).
George Melendez Wright
George Melendez Wright, a Salvadoran man, became the first chief of the National Park Service Wildlife Division in 1933. Wright used his naturalist expertise to protect and conserve wildlife and its habitats (Lopez), directing the first scientific survey of flora and fauna for the National Parks Service and drafting policy that prevented human intervention in nature (Mills). Wright focused his efforts on preventing the feeding of wild animals in parks and banning the killing of animals classified as predators (Lopez). Wright’s contribution to the scientific research of wildlife preservation makes him a significant figure in both conservation and Latinx history in the outdoors.
Selena LaMarr was a member of the Atsugewi tribe in California and worked as the Lassen Volcanic National Park’s first woman interpretive ranger from 1952 through the 1970s. She advocated for Native traditions and representation through her work, offering traditional basket weaving and cooking workshops for visitors (Mills). LeMarr’s work to continue sharing Indigenous knowledge and storytelling in a space with rich colonial history helped to uplift the voices of Indigenous peoples, and was an act of both preservation and liberation.
Turkiya Lowe is the first woman and first Black American to be the chief historian for the National Park Service, receiving the role in 2017 (Mills). Holding a Ph.D. in African American History with a focus on the American West (National Park Service), Lowe has used her expertise to gather research and facilitate access to historical records to the National Park Service and its programs, specifically those that exist within urban areas (Mahoney). The continued research of urban history helps to share the diverse stories of the United States, offering representation of underserved groups who historically migrated to cities.
Betty Reid Soskin
Betty Reid Soskin is the longest-standing park ranger, retiring at the age of 100 in 2022. Soskin worked at the Rosie The Riveter/World War II Homefront National Historic Park and incorporated her own experience being an African American in the 1940s to educate visitors on the history of the United States. Soskin continues to use her popularity as the oldest park ranger to educate younger generations about what she calls our nation’s “cyclical periods of chaos” where democracy has the opportunity to be shifted towards what the people want. Soskin encourages young people to fight for what they believe in and make their voices heard, sharing her own experience of living through various national and cultural shifts throughout the United States as proof that can change can happen (Mills).
Outdoor Recreation in Color: The First BIPOC Thru-Hikers, Climbers, & All-Black Mount Everest Team
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Robert Taylor was the first African American to complete a thru-hike of both the Appalachian Trail (AT) and the Pacific Crest Trail (PCT), two very well-known thru-hiking trails that many hikers dream of completing. Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Taylor first became interested in hiking as a young boy when he was exposed to various media showing the Appalachian Trail, including an article in the magazine Backpacker. He then began research on his own about both the AT and the PCT. Taylor’s interest in hiking did not start through personal experience, say through family or friends, but rather through advertisements from already established outdoor recreation companies. Taylor had to further seek out his sparked interest on his own and was not able to turn to anyone he knew personally to learn more due to the historical exclusion of BIPOC from the outdoors.
Specifically on his thru-hike along the AT, Taylor recalled issues of racism, both on and off the trail. He experienced racial threats, slurs, and feelings of being unwanted throughout his trek. When asked how we can continue to rewrite what the outdoors looks like in order to include everyone, Taylor responds simply
“I just hope the hiking community will keep reaching out to people of color they meet in the wilds. Be friendly, be natural, ask questions” – Robert Taylor, (Farrell).
Sophia Danenberg was the first Black woman, and first African American, to climb Mount Everest in 2006, however, her accomplishments were not met with much attention. An experienced mountaineer, Danenberg submitted Mount Everest just four months after deciding to take on the climb (“Hopes and dreams are overrated”). While she never imagined herself as a mountaineer, a series of Yes’s to rock climbing and hiking led Danenberg to the mountains. In a Tedx Talk at the University of Chicago, Danenberg emphasized the importance of allowing yourself flexibility in your dreams saying,
“If you spend too much time being focused on what you think you are meant to be, you risk missing alternate paths that life might present” – Sophia Danenberg, (“Hopes and dreams are overrated”).
In an interview with Melanin Basecamp, an organization advocating for more BIPOC and LGBTQ+ in the outdoors, Danenberg discusses the challenges of being a Black woman mountaineer. Often being asked to prove her skills or being invited to take a climbing class by fellow white male mountaineers, Danenberg, a well-seasoned and extremely experienced mountaineer, continues to experience bias for being a woman of color in the white-male dominated world of outdoor recreation (Mitchell). Danenberg recognizes the privilege she has to be able to embark on month-long treks and engage in an expensive hobby. The main barrier she sees to BIPOC being more present in such recreation is cost and time. For many, mountaineering specifically is too expensive and demands too much time off for training and trekking (Mitchell).
Zelzin Aketzalli, given the trail name “Quetzal,” is the first Mexican to hike the Triple Crown, which includes the Appalachian Trail, the Pacific Crest Trail, and the Continental Divide Trail and adds up to almost 8,000 miles. Prior to Aketzalli’s first successful thru-hike, she had never backpacked, never seen snow before, and did not speak any English. Aketzalli’s previous experience with outdoor recreation consisted of mountain biking in Mexico, however, she had never heard of the PCT until two Americans she was leading on an MTB guide brought it up to her. Because of Mexico’s lack of hiking trails, the activity is very unpopular and carries the assumption that those who are able to hike in the United States are financially wealthy (Maughan-Brown).
At the age of 23, Aketzalli began the PCT and viewed the trek as a sport, going as fast as she should and averaging 30 miles a day (Maughan-Brown). She became known on trail as the solo, small, and fast Mexican woman with colorful earrings (Egan). She did not meet another Spanish speaker until three weeks into her trek (Maughan-Brown). To complete her historic thru-hike of the Triple Crown, Aketzalli had to hike the Continental Divide Trail, arguably the most challenging of the three trails. Throughout this trek, Aketzalli was faced with almost nonexistent trail markings, snowstorms, and close encounters with mountain goats at camp (Roy).
Aketzalli now has plans to take her personal experience, and newfound exposure within the outdoor industry, to try and develop a thru-hike trail in Mexico, where currently none exists, even though both The Continental Divide and the Pacific Crest Trail begin at its border. Aketzalli recognizes that Mexico is full of athletic people capable of doing things like hiking the PCT, however, due to inaccessibility, people do not get the chance to experience outdoor activities (Maughan-Brown). Aketzalli has her sights specifically on creating a trail throughout Baja California, based on a historic trail known as the Camino Real. Constructed in the late 1600s, the trail extends from the south all the way to the northern part of Baja, however, after centuries of nonexistent management and erosion, the trail barely exists anymore. Aketzalli sees potential in restructuring the Camino Real as a thru-hike for Mexican hikers (Anderson).
While Aketzalli’s story is inspiring, is it the exception as she surpassed many barriers that could have easily made her excursion impossible, at no fault of her own. Signage throughout the PCT is minimal, which generally requires a high skill level of backpacking and outdoor safety as well as extensive research to be done ahead of time. It is not enough to prepare for the PCT through word of mouth, which is shown in Deborah Chavez’s research as one of the main ways Latinx communities learn about outdoor spaces (“Advice for international hikers,” Chavez 4). In this same research, discussed more here, Chavez finds that the language barrier also presents itself through brochures and signage at many parks (Chavez, 2012). Signage on the PCT is entirely in English, and this includes safety signages about wildfires and access to water (“Advice for International Hikers“). Aketzalli’s story shows that these types of barriers are faced across the spectrum of outdoor recreation, whether it be at a state park picnic area or on the PCT trail accessibility barriers deter people from recreating outside, often due to safety concerns (Chavez 76).
Emily Ford made history in 2021 when she became the first Black woman to thru-hike the Ice Age Trail and the first woman to do it in Winter (Salmi). This 1,200-mile trail crosses through the state of Wisconsin and offers a variety of landscapes, including forests, prairies, and rocky terrain, all of which can get presumably very snowy in the winter. Accompanied by a helpful sled dog named Diggins, Ford documented the pair’s journey via social media and developed a strong following of supporters.
Ford’s timing of her trek coincided with the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020 after George Floyd’s murder in her home state of Minnesota. The audience that Ford has developed throughout her trek has allowed her to advocate for the diversification of the outdoors, especially within the Midwest region where there are fewer numbers of BIPOC outdoor recreationists, organizations, and influencers (Salmi). In one of Ford’s messages to her followers, she says,
“For the people who look like me and are afraid to spend a night under the stars. I don’t want others to be deprived of such calm and beauty because of societal fear…literally ANYONE can play outdoors. No matter which boxes you do or do not check” – Emily Ford, (Salmi).
Full Circle Everest Expedition
The Full Circle Everest Expedition consists of a group of nine Black hikers preparing to climb Mount Everest in May of 2022. All experienced climbers, each of them expressed interest in joining the all-Black expedition due to their personal experiences of usually being the only Black climber on previous treks. The group has gained sponsorships from well-known outdoor gear brands, such as North Face and Smartwool, that are beginning to recognize the importance of uplifting BIPOC communities engaging in outdoor recreation (Loudin).
All of these figures are accomplishing great milestones for the communities they, willingly or unwillingly, represent. Many recall the rare experiences of seeing other BIPOC on trail, those moments often including both excitement and shock to see someone like them. The accomplishments of these figures show that BIPOC can and do exist in the world of outdoor recreation, however, the narrative still emphasizes the need for further diversification and accessibility in order for all to feel safe. Not only do BIPOC communities want to engage in outdoor recreation through public park gatherings and accessing state and national parks, but there are many, such as the figures mentioned, that want to engage in extreme, predominantly white, outdoor recreational sports, such as mountaineering and backpacking.