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Black Environmentalists to Know

Three images split vertically. In one photo is Betty Reid Soskin. George Washington Carver is on the far image and Afro Outdoors group is in center image.
February 23, 2021

Learn about some of the many Black environmentalists who contribute to sustainability.

“For me, environment changed from just being about pollution, endangered species and climate change to human rights, civil rights, economic equity, gender equality and all the ways we related to each other. That’s what the environment is. It had to be everything” -Dr. John Francis

Black environmentalists have made some of the biggest contributions to sustainability. From sustainable agricultural practices to propelling the Environmental Justice Movement forward, these accomplishments cannot be condensed into a single month or post. Included in this article are just a small sampling of Black environmental activists. You can help celebrate Black history year-round by supporting Black activists, Black-led movements, and continuing to learn about our country’s history and impact.

George Washington Carver (1864-1943)
George Washington Carver was an agricultural scientist and inventor who revolutionized American farming techniques. He was born into slavery and later become the first Black man in the United States to earn a Bachelor of Science degree. After completing his Masters's degree in agricultural science, he taught and conducted research at Tuskegee University. 

George Washington Carver educated farmers on crop rotation practices and helped make the practice common to avoid soil degradation. He introduced using nearby swamp muck instead of fertilizer for fields and used his Jessup wagon, which was a mobile classroom, to teach about agricultural science on farms. He invented more than 300 products from peanuts, which were a bioproduct of his crop rotation practices for cotton. While researching and inventing methods to make farming more sustainable and efficient, George Washington Carver was also a loud advocate for racial equality and addressing world hunger. 

Betty Reid Soskin (1921-present)
Betty Reid Soskin is a 99-year-old Park Ranger, making her the oldest National Park Service Ranger in history. She’s also been a community organizer throughout her life. Betty Reid Soskin grew up in New Orleans during Jim Crow segregation and later moved to California. During World War II, she worked as a file clerk in a segregated union hall. She was an active supporter of the Civil Rights and Black Power movements in the Bay Area in the 60s and 70s.

During the Civil Rights Movement, Betty Reid Soskin was also a songwriter and co-founded one of the first Black-owned record stores in California, Reid’s Records. Today, Betty works at the Rosie the Riveter/WWII Home Front National Historical Park in Richmond, California, and educates the public on the ignored histories of POC during the war effort. 

Dr. John Francis (1946-present)
In 1971 after a devastating oil spill in the San Francisco Bay, Dr. John Francis was one of the many to help clean it up. Witnessing the detrimental effects of mishandled resources inspired him to make a bigger commitment to protecting the planet. Dr. Francis decided to start walking everywhere. The media dubbed him the “Planetwalker.” Dr. Francis made trips across the United States and in several Latin American countries on foot. A few months into his walking challenge, he decided to also take a vow of silence that lasted 17 years. During this time, he focused on listening to others instead of arguing so much. 

His actions inspired many to focus more on their personal impact on the planet. This led to the creation of the nonprofit organization Planetwalk and Dr. Francis became the project manager for the US Coast Guard Oil Pollution Act Staff of 1990. Today, Dr. Francis continues educating about environmental protection. 

Dudley Edmondson (1962-present)
Dudley Edmondson is an author, wildlife photographer, birder, and Duluthian. He also works to make the outdoors more accessible for diverse young people by visiting schools around the country to introduce students to birding and guide them on nature hikes. Edmondson first became interested in birding during a field trip in his senior year of high school. He wrote the book Black & Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places to share some of the contributions people of color make to outdoor conservation efforts and counter the discourse that Black people don’t work in the outdoors. His photography has been published in almost 100 publications, as well as galleries and field guides. 

Outdoor Afro & Rue Mapp (2009-present) & (1971-present)
Outdoor Afro is a Black-led group dedicated to fostering Black connections with the outdoors and promoting conservation practices and knowledge. The group connects Black people with outdoor opportunities and groups near their community (there’s even a group in Minneapolis) and also leads outdoor expeditions, like hiking and camping trips. As well as making the outdoors more inclusive and accessible for marginalized people, the group works to protect the outdoors and educate on Black people’s contributions to the environment. 

The group was founded by Rue Mapp, who wanted to increase diverse participation in the outdoors. Since starting Afro Outdoors, Rue Mapp has served on the Outdoor Industry Association, The Wilderness Society boards, and was appointed to the California State Parks Commission.