Celebrating Environmentalists this Black History Month

By Jenevra Wetmore

In honor of Black History Month Sustainable Woodstock is recognizing the work of historical and modern Black environmental leaders. In the US it is well-documented that environmental burdens are overwhelmingly placed on low-income communities and communities of color. However, when we are asked to picture an environmentalist, we may more easily think of people like Al Gore, Bill McKibben, Jane Goodall, Aldo Leopold, or Rachel Carson (these are all names I was able to think of in a matter of seconds). These are great environmental leaders, but do not represent the diversity of the environmental movement.

George Washington Carver, Tuskegee, Alabama, 1941. Photo: Collection of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture.

We celebrate and thank Black leaders who have made a lasting impact on the environmental movement. We honor just a few of those leaders here:

Solomon Brown (1829-1906) was the first African American employee of the Smithsonian Institution. Brown was hired in 1852 as a general laborer, and became known as “Professor Brown” for his wide range of skills and knowledge, despite not having a formal education. He was self-educated in the field of natural history and illustrated maps and specimens for museum secretary Spencer Fullerton Baird. He also developed his own talks such as “The Social Habits of Insects,” which he delivered to local groups. Several trees have been planted around the National Museum of Natural History in his honor.

George Washington Carver (1864-1943) may be famous for his role in crop science, including how to grow and use the peanut, but he also espoused beliefs that we would label “environmentalism” today. Carver encouraged crop rotation, telling local farmers to rotate cotton with legumes to restore nitrogen to the soil. His master’s thesis “Plants as Modified by Man,” dated 1894 reads, “no longer must man act simply as an aid to nature in improving plants, both edible and inedible, man must take the initiative in using nature to provide sustainable food systems that will help to alleviate hunger, encourage local participation and activism, and to safeguard and control our local food and water systems.”

Doctor Wangari Muta Maathai (1940-2011) was the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate degree, and went on to become the first African woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize. She started the Green Belt Movement, an indigenous grassroots organization in Kenya that empowers women through the planting of trees and addressing global deforestation. Maathai authored four books (The Green Belt Movement, Unbowed, The Challenge for Africa, and Replenishing the Earth) and advocated for democracy, human rights and environmental conservation until her death.

Ru Mapp (born 1971) founded Outdoor Afro in 2009, which is now a national not-for-profit with more than 100 trained volunteer leaders. The nonprofit celebrates and inspires Black connections and leadership in nature. Volunteers create safe outdoor experiences for everyone to enjoy, which range from fishing, kayaking, backpacking, skiing, boating, gardening, biking, hiking, horseback riding, birding, and swimming. In 2019 Outdoor Afro launched Making Waves, a program addressing to the high number of Black children that drown every year, which is a result of historic prohibition of access to beaches and public pools. Making Waves teaches Black children and their caregivers how to swim and develop positive relationships with water.

Robert Bullard (born 1946) is known as the father of environmental justice. Environmental justice is the principle that all people and communities have a right to equal protection and equal enforcement of environmental laws and regulations. Bullard’s work calls out the ways in which people of color are exposed to environmental harms at a much higher rate than White people. Bullard is an award-winning author of eighteen books that address sustainable development, environmental racism, urban land use, industrial facility siting, community reinvestment, housing, transportation, climate justice, disasters, emergency response and community resilience, smart growth, and regional equity. In 2021, President Joe Biden appointed him to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council (WHEJAC).

Vic Barrett is a 23-year-old Honduran-American, first-generation American, Black, Latinx, queer climate activist from New York. Vic is one of the plaintiffs in the now-famous Juliana v United States court case. The claim made by youth activists in Juliana was that, through the government’s affirmative actions that cause climate change, it had violated the youngest generation’s constitutional rights to life, liberty, and property, as well as failed to protect essential public trust resources. The case was dismissed due to lack of standing, but this has not stopped Barrett’s advocacy. He is a Fellow with the Alliance for Climate Education, and traveled to Paris to attend and speak at the COP21 UN Conference on Climate Change.

Thank you to the inspiring Black activists who stood up for our earth, and to those who continue to do so.

What can you do

  • Learn about environmental racism by reading books such as Robert Bullard’s “The Wrong Complexion for Protection”
  • Donate to nonprofits supporting racial justice work
  • Support Black-owned businesses (visit www.vtpoc.net to see a BIPOC business directory)


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