Here’s how national parks are working to fight racism
Efforts are underway to make the outdoors more inclusive. But many Black travelers are still cautious to embrace America’s ‘best idea.’
Halfway into our two-week paddling trip through the Grand Canyon, my longtime friend Jim Moss had a sudden realization. After a thrilling day exploring limpid blue pools and towering waterfalls beneath the desert rim, we sat in beach chairs drinking ice-cold beer along the banks of the Colorado River.
“You know? I’ve made more than 40 commercial guiding trips through this place,” he said. “In 25 years, I think you’re the first African American I’ve ever seen down here.”
There’s a statistical reason for this: Although Black Americans represent 13.4 percent of the U.S. population, a 2018 report published in The George Wright Forum indicates that we make up less than 2 percent of national park visitors.
Each year the National Park Service (NPS) issues permits by lottery for a limited number of Grand Canyon visitors to make the 226-mile river-rafting trip from the put-in at Lees Ferry to the take-out at Diamond Creek. In order to preserve the integrity of this natural resource and to minimize the impact of human beings camping along the river, only 29,000 people a year are allowed to make this journey (in contrast, nearly 6 million people annually visit the rim of the Grand Canyon).
By its nature, outdoor recreation requires a certain amount of disposable income and leisure time. As a freelance journalist with a specialty in adventure travel, I had just enough of both, so I could drop everything when Moss won the permit lottery in 2016. I joined his group of 13 friends and we filled five rubber boats on this trip of a lifetime.
I had noticed the lack of diversity among the people we encountered from one end of the Grand Canyon to the other, but I wasn’t surprised. After almost 30 years as a professional in the outdoor industry, and as a Black man, I am used to seeing few people of color in the great outdoors. But in my experience, embarking on outdoor adventures has far less to do with discretionary income and vacation days. The real problem is that there is a perception among Black people that they don’t belong outdoors. Although many folks would take exception to my opinion, the great outdoors in the U.S. has never truly been a welcoming place for people of color.
(Related: Here’s why national parks accessibility matters.)
Four years after my journey, we are embroiled in nationwide protests following the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. Consequently, Black Americans who aspire to visit our national parks will ask with good reason: Am I welcome here? Am I safe? Do I belong? This is especially true as parks and their gateway communities reopen after being closed for several months due to COVID-19. The twin threats of prejudice and pandemic are causing travelers of color to wonder whether our national parks are safe and welcoming places for everyone.
A history of exclusion
After spending much of my life working and playing in the outdoors, I’ve come to understand one thing. Throughout their long history, the national parks have been a stark reflection of our national character. The policies of Jim Crow segregation were well established when President Woodrow Wilson signed into law the creation of the National Park Service on August 25, 1916. Those restrictive codes would remain in place at parks across the country through the end of World War II. Any Black travelers to campgrounds and picnic areas at public sites such as Rocky Mountain and Shenandoah National Parks might come across posted signs that read “For Whites Only.”
In 1945, Interior Secretary Harold Ickes issued a bulletin mandating desegregation in all national parks. But it took years for that to be accomplished throughout the parks system. Despite their desegregation, the national parks remained every bit as exclusionary as any public institution through much of the early 20th century.
During this time, travel on the open road between the national parks also included the very real threat of racially motivated mistreatment, physical abuse, or even violence perpetrated against Black Americans. From 1936 through 1966, The Negro Motorist Green-Book, published by a former U.S. Postal Service employee named Victor Hugo Green, provided detailed information on hotels, restaurants, drugstores, barbershops, and campsites that catered to a Black clientele, including those near Yosemite and other national parks. The Green Book showed where people of color could receive travel services without having to suffer the indignities of racial discrimination.
(Related: Follow along on this Green Book-inspired roadtrip along the U.S. Civil Rights Trail.)
The inscription over the north entrance of Yellowstone National Park quotes a phrase from the legislation that created it in 1872: “For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People.” The question of which people these words refer to has long been debated, especially since the park was established on public land taken by force from Native Americans who were its stewards for generations.
“In reference to those words over the Roosevelt Arch, 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. For the powers that be to acknowledge that past and recognize how that history inflects and shapes the way we look at people today is very important.”
Traveling while Black
The Civil Rights Act of 1964 has done much to ease the tensions of racial strife in the subsequent 56 years. Because I was born two years after its passage, my family and I were able to take advantage of at least a few of the newfound freedoms the law brought about.
Despite this landmark legislation, there remains a great deal of division in our society when it comes to how people of color spend their money and free time for recreation. In recent years, the National Park Service has made concerted efforts to change that.
“The National Park Service commits to lead change and work against racism. Specifically, we will work together in building strategies and tools that effectively engage all communities so that we become better allies for inclusion, equity, and equality,” wrote NPS deputy director David Vela in a public statement on June 9. “We commit to doing a better job of listening and building a genuinely more inclusive environment both within the agency and with external communities.”
His statement reflects the concept of anti-racism, a system of proactive policies and behaviors meant to correct racial bias and injustice. It’s an idea President Barack Obama advanced via presidential memorandum to NPS and other public land agencies in January of 2017. Called “Promoting Diversity and Inclusion in Our National Parks, National Forests, and Other Public Lands and Waters,” this document encourages parks stewards to advocate for a more inclusive and complete story of America, advocates including diverse voices in the decision-making process for new public lands and waters, and recommends increasing the number of outreach programs dedicated to providing better access for diverse communities.
Although agencies of the federal government are often limited in their abilities to guide social change, these recommendations aim to correct more than a century of land management policies that have long ignored people of color. Anti-racism in our national parks means telling the stories of everyone who contributed to the historic character of the land. In doing so, not only can all visitors be made to feel welcome, they may even be inspired to help preserve and protect our lands.
“We try to get people to have meaningful experiences in our parks so that they will remain culturally relevant for a population that [is becoming] more ethnically diverse,” says Alan Spears, senior director of cultural resources at the National Parks Conservation Association. “We do that by rolling up our sleeves and creating new sites and exhibits that show the American people a history that they are a part of.”
Embracing the outdoors
People of color across the U.S. are empowering themselves and others to become outdoor enthusiasts. Many start by visiting national parks. Public land managers hope to assure visitors that despite recent incidents of racially charged violence and discrimination all visitors will be welcome.
On July 9, 1964, seven days after the Civil Rights Act was signed into law, a mountaineer named Charles Madison Crenchaw became the first Black American to reach the top of Denali (then known as Mount McKinley), the highest peak in North America.
In 2013 the first all-Black team of climbers attempted a summit of Denali. That story is recounted in my 2014 book, The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors, which shares the history of Black men and women who defied cultural norms to do remarkable things in the natural world.
I was excited to receive feedback from readers. “Growing up I never really thought the outdoors was for me,” said Thomas Moore, a Black entrepreneur originally from Atlanta who now lives in Denver. “I thought climbing mountains was just something that white people did, but I read your book and all that changed.”
Inspired by the stories I documented, Moore spent a year training and acquiring the necessary equipment to become a climber. In June 2018, on a guided trip to Alaska, he reached the summit of Denali. “Now I want to see what else I can do,” Moore recently told me.
Black American travelers now reportedly represent a $63 billion market, and there's been an uptick in Black adventure travel. Organizations that support and encourage people of color to venture safely into the outdoors are flourishing on social media. Black and brown folks are posting their adventures to Facebook and Instagram pages that include Outdoor Afro, Latino Outdoors, Brown People Camping, Natives Outdoors, Black People Who Hike, Brown Folks Fishing, and many others.
One of the latest expressions of Black travel solidarity is a new start-up organization called Inclusive Journeys, which aims to create a digital version of the Green Book. “As a Black woman, I never know if the service I receive is going to be tainted by someone’s conscious or unconscious bias. It’s always hit or miss,” says co-founder Parker McMullen Bushman. “When we’ve traveled, we’ve had experiences where we’ve been discriminated against or made to feel unwelcome. The ability to look ahead of time and know what businesses are inclusive, where we will be welcome, is a valuable tool.”
(Related: With trails opening, is it safe—or ethical—to go hiking this summer?)
My own love and 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—the Buffalo Soldiers in Sequoia and Yosemite; Lancelot Jones, a son of a former slave who sold his land to the NPS so that it could be preserved as part of Biscayne National Park in the Florida Keys; Charles Crenchaw on the summit of Denali. Each of these stories affirm my place on this land, in the best idea America ever had.
“The last act of the civil rights movement is this embrace of the Earth,” NPS ranger Shelton Johnson says. “If Martin Luther King [Jr.] were alive today, he would be first and foremost to say we as a people need to go to Yellowstone, we need to go to the Grand Canyon. Because if this is America’s best idea and we played a role in this creation, how dare we not choose that for ourselves?”