Black Heritage Month, Buffalo Soldiers, and Shelton Johnson

I will be a historian until the day I die. I can imagine reaching with my wavering hand stretched out for my computer so I can go look up something at the Library of Congress website. That’s why when Black Heritage Month comes in February, I perk up.

The celebration of African American accomplishments was launched by Carter G. Woodson, the granddaddy of African American history. He first named the annual celebration Negro History Week, which was later expanded to Black History Month. Many now call the month of February Black Heritage Month.

Gloryland by Shelton Johnson

I could go on and on about environmental (that would include technology, science and medicine in my mind) contributions by African Americans. I am inspired to share a few things in the month of February 2010.

The Buffalo soldiers first come to mind. I learned about them many years ago. I knew they were a branch of the U.S. military launched after the Civil War. I also knew of two stories of why Native Americans gave these African Americans the name  buffalo: Native Americans believed African Americans were fierce fighters and had curly hair much like the buffalo.

As for the environment, African American men in the military serving in the American West, crossed and worked on numerous landscapes from deserts to prairies after the Civil War. News of the publication of  Gloryland: A Novel by Shelton Johnson led me to look for more online in connection to the novel, which was revelatory. What I did not know was that Buffalo solders served as some of the first national park rangers in California!

Learn more about the Buffalo soldiers and Shelton Johnson:

President Barack Obama and Shelton Johnson

Shelton Johnson

Johnson has worked for the National Park Service since 1987 and is currently one of few African American park rangers at park ranger in Yosemite Park. He appeared in Ken Burn’s “The National Parks, America’s Best Idea,” a PBS documentary film. In 2009, Johnson’s  Gloryland: A Novel  was published by Sierra Club Books. It is the story of Elijah Yancy who was born on January 1, 1863 and traveled West in the early 1880’s. The novel is filled with environmental themes including rich descriptions of the landscape Yancy traversed across the country.

Wangari Maathai: Nobel Peace Prize Winner at Morehouse

Wangari Maathai was honored as the 2004 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for her commitment to conservation in Kenya. Maathai organized the Greenbelt Movement in her home country Kenya. The movement is a non-government environmental organization focusing on conservation. They plant trees, provide environmental education, and more.

Two years later in 2006, I was excited about seeing Maathai in person at a Morehouse College commencement. In my favorite photo in the center, she ceremonially planted a tree on the Morehouse campus.  Yes, I took a few photos!

Morehouse Special Commencement, 3/24/06

Photo 1: Wangari Maathai

Photo 2: Maathai planting a tree on the Morehouse campus.

Photo 3: m. Maathai and r. Andrew Young

Guest Blog: Grey Gundaker on African American Yards

No Space Hidden

For many years I was fortunate to visit and learn from around fifteen African Americans and their yards in detail. Most of the yards are located in small towns and cities in the South and a few are rural. I wasn’t looking at that them from an environmental perspective, but more at their design–the total layout as well as placement of plants, art works, and other areas.  I wanted to know what these places meant to their makers and neighborhoods.  Mainly I looked for memorials to ancestors and loved ones.  Each yard had areas that represented “wildness” and those that role modeled how to be “cultivated”–a mature, responsible person. These different areas has different contents. Wild parts were jazzier and looked like little forests. Cultivated areas were more symmetrical and planned. Eventually I realized that these yards built in some valuable information about an African American environmental philosophy that is very old and also mentioned in memoirs from the past  Some of the ideas in this philosophy  include:

  • We are part of  nature.  If we “lose our nature” we are in trouble, with no zest for living. So instead of nature– (or environment) —versus—society, there are three kinds of land/places in the world that involve different kinds of responsibility: Wild, settled (or cultivated) and ruined. The first two are both “natural.”
  • “Cultivation” does not oppose nature. We have to work with and in nature to grow plants and to mature as people. For example, it is a part of nature to make homes and take care of them.  But this care-taking and imposition of order can be too much– too rule-bound for good health, carried too far. So wild and cultivated ideally balance each other.   Kongo scholar Fu-Kiau Kia Bunseki has written: “a place with one kind of trees can never be a forest; it can only be an orchard.”
  • “Wild” places are defined as being unpredictable, beyond human control and diverse– not  pristine or untouched by people, as they is said to be in much mainline American environmental theory.  Wild places are unpredictable because the more diversity there is, the more that can happen. This as true in the city streets and in the forests. But diversity means wild places are where new, healing ideas and resources come from, too.
  • So wild and cultivated can cut both ways: to be right the have to interact and balance each other.
  • But RUIN IS “unnatural” because from a religious/moral perspective some place is only ruined through irresponsibility: it is an affront to God’s Creation.  Studying Old Field Succession is now a standard part of  environmental science.  But during Reconstruction after the Civil war, African Americans in Virginia called “old field” “ruined land.” They said that the plantation land had been “made” from wild into cultivated by their work and that the whites were too lazy to keep it up after they lost their forced laborers.  Saying that is an accusation of moral failure.

These words have given me a lot to think about. It seems like much African American environmental activism is directed at avoiding and healing human beings’ moral failures through pollution of the earth and bodies, too, through crack and drugs.  The aim of activism to restore well-being for all– not to get to a pristine state or remove human beings from the forests. Thus healing neighborhoods is as “natural” as  cleaning up a polluted river.  Anyway, I would really like to know what all of you are thinking and doing.

By Grey Gundaker

Read: No Space Hidden: The Spirit of African American Yard Work

Nature in Art! Jacob Lawrence’s Migration Series

Artists often depict nature and Jacob Lawrence, an African American, is no exception. Come take a look at his Migration Series that he painted during the first half of the early twentieth century. His art reflects the migration of African Americans from the South to the North during that same period.

One of my favorite paintings depicts cotton and the boll weevil, an insect that decimated cotton in the South:

Panel no. 9: They left because the boll weevil had ravaged the cotton crop, 1940-1941

The boll weevil was one of many reasons, racism and violence being at the top of the list, why African Americans moved away from the South to find opportunities in the North.

I love all of Lawrence’s work!

Haiti and New Orleans’ Mayor Ray Nagin

Mayor Ray Nagin recommends slate of changes in federal disaster recovery act

When I lived in New Orleans I fondly referred to New Orleans’ Mayor Ray Nagin as Ray Ray and Nay Nay. I knew of him before, during, and after Katrina.  In my mind he wasn’t always accessible to the people in NOLA and that included the months after Katrina. Just my opinion!

Ray Ray and the Chocolate City

See the Chocolate City Video

He’s back. And he’s calling the federal government out comparing the failures of post-Katrina, particularly FEMA to what is going on in Haiti.

Do you think the US federal government failed after Katrina? Are they doing a better job in Haiti in the aftermath of the earthquake? Or worse? Are they meeting the needs of Haitians concerning food, water, and medical supplies? Are surgical teams and military forces arriving quickly enough and are they being put to good use? Coming back around full circle to the US, how can the federal government improve their efforts with the next Katrina?

What do you think?

Zoos, Circuses, Safaris, Sea Worlds, and Aquariums

While I was driving into Atlanta this morning, I saw a sign for the Georgia Aquarium. It got me thinking about my experiences at places like zoos where animals are viewed by a myriad of people across lines of race, gender, age, and more.

I am torn because some of these places help to educate people about wildlife. If there was no Sea World, many would not be able to see dolphins up close. On the other hand, animals are abused in some settings.

From an environmental perspective and even a personal one, what do you think of creatures, great and small, in zoos, circuses, safaris, sea worlds, and aquariums?

Beluga Whale

Suggested Reading: Black & Brown Faces in American Wild Places

Photographed and Written by Dudley Edmundson, Cambridge, Minnesota: Adventure Publications, Inc., 2006.

Black and Brown Faces

I was on Amazon searching for books on African Americans and the environment. When I opened up the link to  Black & Brown Faces, I recognized two familiar faces: Frank & Audrey Peterman. They like nineteen others tell their own environmental stories within the broader tapestry of the broader African American communities. Shelton Johnson reminisces about traveling alone through Yellowstone Park by snowmobile to deliver mail. And like a griot, he recounts some of the history of the Buffalo Soldiers protecting national parks. Cheryl Armstrong also organized the James P. Beckworth Mountain Club to take urban African American children to wilderness places.

Pick-up a copy and read more.

Cochran Mills Hike

I do hike!

The photo goes back to 2008 during a hike at Cochran Mills in Georgia. When I’m in a group no problem. But when I’m out alone (ok, I stopped hiking alone a few years ago!), I get looks.

Black Girl Scouts!

Were you a Girl Scout? What are your stories?

“African American girl scouts listen to instructor talk about first aid,” Joyner Digital Library, East Carolina University,, December 1955 – February 1956.

Girl Scouts have a long history going back to to 1912. African American girls were also part of the movement dating back to the 1950’s as seen in this photo, and even earlier. Learn more at Celebrating 95 Years of Black History at Girl Scouts of the USA.