The History of Racism in America's Parks
Updated: Apr 16
Racism is by no means a new issue in the outdoor industry. In fact, learning the foundation of exclusivity and discrimination on which America's National Parks are built is crucial to understanding the persistent underrepresentation of Black folks as park visitors and employees.
A Rocky Start
The first national park was established when Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act in 1872. The bill's writers imagined national parks as a "pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people," but the creation of national parks is nowhere near as glamorous as history textbooks often portray it to be. The parks weren't "uncharted territory," but rather home to a vast array of indigenous tribes. Once established, in order to "preserve the beauty" of the parks like Yellowstone, laws were signed making anyone who settled on the land deemed "trespassers" and subject to removal. As a result, tribes who had lived for generations on the 2.2 million acres designated by the government were pushed from their ancestral land and relocated hundreds of miles away, and in the process, humiliated, attacked, and killed.
In order to maintain control of the vast swaths of land commandeered by the government, Park Rangers were established. Until the Civil War, Black soldiers were barred from joining the Union Army. However, Congress passed a law in 1866 that allowed for the creation of six Black regiments in the Army which came to be known as the "Buffalo Soldiers." When Yosemite was created, there wasn't yet a National Park Service, so the Buffalo Soldiers stepped in as rangers to evict thieves, put out forest fires, and build roads and trails.
However, despite their majors contributions to the national parks, Black Americans weren't welcome as park visitors in most parts of the country. Parks displayed "Whites Only" signs that are still remembered by visitors today. Other parks allowed Black visitors but directed them to campgrounds and hikes away from White people.
This dark and rarely told history of exclusion behind National Parks extends to prominent environmentalist icons. John Muir, a famous naturalist who was instrumental in creating many national parks, was incredibly racist against Blacks as well as Indigenous people. He was known to argue that Native Americans had "no right place" in the parks and repeated used slurs against Black people. The fact that he remains revered speaks to the deliberate whitewashing of the National Park's racist history.
Harold Ickes, the Secretary of the Interior, finally mandated the desegregation of national parks in 1945; however, the policy wasn’t fully implemented until years later. The first Black person to lead the service, Robert Stanton, was nominated in 1997, less than 25 years ago. This slow progress means that many Black Americans alive today were not allowed into national parks in their lifetimes. Therefore, immense changes to the culture of the parks are crucial to making people of color feel welcomed and safe in parks today.
Historical trauma also plays a part in why Black Americans don't feel as comfortable in outdoor spaces. According to a 2018 study that asked why African Americans may be deterred from visiting forests, a majority explained how the trauma of slavery and lynchings is associated with the environment for many African Americans.
Although cultural change has come slowly, President Obama and the National Park Service converted several historical sites that commemorate the history of Black and mistreated groups into national monuments and national parks. Notable examples include the Fort Monroe National Monument in Virginia, which marks the site where the first slaves arrived in America, and the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Historical Park in Maryland, which was built to honor Tubman's tireless work transporting slaves on the Underground Railroad.
Racial Disparities Today
Although the park service is moving in the right direction, it still has a long way to go. A whopping 83% of the agency’s employees are white, which is 20% more than the rest of the federal government. Only 6% of employees are Black and 5% are Hispanic, and the leadership team is composed of only 6% Black people and just over 7% Hispanic people. The overwhelming white majority is present at all levels of employees, including rangers and seasonal workers.
Even worse is the lack of progress and effort to improve these figures. Although some leaders are working to promote more diverse hiring, the racial distribution of park employees has not changed over the last five years. The exclusionary culture of America’s outdoors impacts not only the national parks but also local outdoor areas, including hiking trails and state forests.
What can we do to change the culture?
Educate yourself using this resource guide we’ve compiled on anti-racism in the outdoor industry. Hold outdoor organizations accountable! Look at the racial composition of leadership at your favorite outdoor brands and request that they commit resources to ensuring outdoor access for all.
Finally, it is worth noting that the grim statistics and dark history of the National Parks are only part of the story. It is equally important to shine the light on the many incredible organizations such as Brown Girls Climb and Melanin Base Camp that are working to ensure racial equity. Take a look at Danielle William's Guide to Outdoor Allyship, for more insight on how to walk the walk.
It is worth reflecting on the words of Latria Graham:
"When you hear about what black people don’t do, know that the statistics are only part of the story and can be counterproductive to the future of African Americans in the outdoors. It’s time we change the story we’re telling. Realize that we, as a diaspora, are just as multifaceted, complex, and diverse as the national parks we are starting to explore."