Photograph by Hudson Henry
Photograph by Hudson Henry
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How are national parks working to fight racism?

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By George Stone, TRAVEL Executive Editor

“For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” So reads the inscription over the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park; the phrase comes from legislation that established the park in 1872. “The question of which people these words refer to has long been debated,” writes James Edward Mills in our story about efforts to make America’s national parks more inclusive.

“We weren’t always ‘the People,’” says National Park Service ranger Shelton Johnson, a Black American who began his career at Yellowstone in 1987. “Women weren’t always ‘the People.’ Certainly, African Americans and Native Americans didn’t have full rights as citizens.”

As Mills reports, the policies of Jim Crow segregation were well established when the National Park Service was founded on August 25, 1916. Then, Black travelers to public sites might come across signs that read “For Whites Only.” In 1945, an official bulletin mandated desegregation in all national parks, but it took years. “Although Black Americans represent 13.4 percent of the U.S. population, a 2018 report ... indicates that we make up less than 2 percent of national park visitors,” writes Mills. ”There is a perception among Black people that they don’t belong outdoors.” (Pictured, members of the first all-Black team of climbers attempting to scale Alaska’s Denali in 2013).

Many Black travelers remain cautious to embrace what Wallace Stegner called ”the best idea we ever had.” Part of this caution might be related to the perceived risks of traveling through areas surrounding national parks. On my drive last weekend to hike a portion of the Appalachian Trail in western North Carolina, I counted at least five Confederate flags.

In recent years, the National Park Service has made concerted efforts to correct racial bias and injustice. One of its tools is a January 2017 memorandum called “Promoting Diversity and Inclusion in Our National Parks, National Forests, and Other Public Lands and Waters,” issued by President Barack Obama. The document seeks to diversify the narratives of our public lands, advocates for including diverse voices in the decision-making process for new public lands, and recommends increasing outreach to diverse communities.

Grassroots efforts are gaining traction. “Organizations that support and encourage people of color to venture safely into the outdoors are flourishing on social media,” notes Mills (pictured below). Ultimately the push to get outdoors is about getting away from everything but nature, and in this direction Mills points to some excellent guides: “My own appreciation for the national parks only deepened when I learned the stories of the Black men and women in our history who made these incredible places possible.”

Please check out Mills’ story and do your part to make our parklands—and their surrounding areas—welcoming to all people.

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Today in a minute

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In a few words

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This newsletter has been curated and edited by David Beard, and Jen Tse selected the photographs. Have an idea or a link? We'd love to hear from you at david.beard@natgeo.com . And thanks for reading!