Monday, December 3, 2018

Black People And Their Fight For Equal Rights In The Outdoors

African American children with dog on the beach - Apalachicola, Florida C. 1895

In the late 19th century the back-to-nature movement began as a revolt against mass and rapid urbanization in the northern U.S. It was defined by a desire to return to the more rural countryside where fewer people lived and more open spaces existed. Cities were crowded and dirty. Many people worked in factories that were dark and noisy. Little room was left for green spaces as cities grew faster and faster with man-made structures popping up everywhere. When people no longer had easy access to open, outdoor spaces they realized how much they needed those spaces. It was a need felt by all races, religions, and socioeconomic classes.

People from every walk of life started seeking ways to leave the city if only for a few hours to reconnect with nature. This began with people riding the trolley to the end of the line or walking if they had to out of the city and into the countryside. Long walks, picnics, and eventually camping caught on as new but vital forms of recreation. People frequently picnicked in farmer’s fields, churchyards and even in cemeteries as no parks existed in most cities. This would be considered socially unacceptable today if not illegal. But at that time in history, people found natural spaces wherever they were available.

The back-to-nature movement has historically been seen as a primarily White phenomenon. But this is not the full story. Contact with nature is something everyone enjoys and is decidedly human. It is not limited to any race. Cultures throughout history have enjoyed gardens and prized natural spaces as sacred. To be human is to be a part of a larger biologically diverse community.

Black people have not historically accounted for a large percentage of outdoor recreators. But this has more to do with means and opportunity than with passion or desire. Segregated public spaces and businesses have long been a major obstacle to Black people who desired to enjoy natural areas. However, Black communities and individuals have found ways to access natural areas despite all barriers. There is no doubt they found ways to gather, recreate and relax outside even before the beginning of the back-to-nature movement.

A great example can be found in one Richard Allen. His story takes place before the back-to-nature movement. Allen was born a slave in 1760. During his childhood, he attended Methodist Society meetings and converted to the Protestant faith. As he grew older he purchased his own freedom and sought to become a preacher. At the young age of 22, he was licensed as an official Methodist preacher. At that time there was little effort to ease the plight of American slaves. Richard Allen sought to change that. Utilizing the progressive practices of the Methodist movement, Allen became a circuit preacher. He traveled by foot and horse as much as 25 miles a day around the New England States. He reported he enjoyed being outdoors despite the challenges. Wherever he went he preached his message of hope anywhere he could, often in open fields. At times barred from established churches, Allen took his message to his oppressed brethren wherever they were. He encountered much hardship and many barriers. He established the Free African Society in 1787 which provided assistance to the sick, widows, orphans, and anyone in need. His work eventually led to the creation of one of the first all-Black church in the United States —Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. This church is still thriving today.1,2

Beginning with the freeing of all slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation and the end of the Civil War in 1865 the lot of Black people in the United States began to improve. However, things moved extremely slowly especially in the South due to discriminatory laws and attitudes. In many ways, life was as difficult and oppressive as pre-emancipation. Small freedoms became avenues through which African Americans could practice their independence. Hunting and fishing were vivid symbols of their new freedom and independence. Under the structure of slavery, White masters hunted and fished for sport. If Blacks did hunt or fish it was rarely for themselves and certainly never for recreation. With freedom came the ability to hunt and fish for themselves and their families. Still, for many, it was a requisite for survival. Poor and trapped in debt to White landlords due to unfair laws, most Blacks could not spare the resources to hunt and fish for pure pleasure until well into the 20th Century. Necessity was the prime motivation. Yet there is always a relish that accompanies these activities and although superseded by necessity, hunting and fishing provided a source of recreation. It simultaneously gave them control over their own lives and provided a means of enjoyment in the great outdoors.3

History has left us a definite record of African Americans participating in outdoor recreation on a large scale beginning in the 1890’s. Off the coast of Massachusetts in the Cape Cod islands are found beautiful beaches. Several Protestant evangelistic groups held revival meetings on the island of Martha’s Vineyard. As people attended these meetings they were impressed by the island's natural beauty. People began to frequent the island and its beaches. Black people grew especially fond of the beaches on the northeast side near Oak Bluffs because they were able to access them without the push-back of segregation. The main beach became known as Inkwell due to the predominantly Black visitors. This beach inspired the 1994 movie The Inkwell. This area became so popular around the turn of the 20th century that resort communities, many dedicated primarily to Black clientele, sprang up to accommodate the volume of visitors. This island is still a popular resort destination today.4

At the turn of the Century and into the first few decades African Americans continued to face segregation and discriminatory laws. One place provided a pleasant escape --Lincoln Hills. Lincoln Hills was a “Scenic Wonderland” in the Colorado Rocky Mountains as one advertisement put it. Beginning in 1922, Lincoln Hills slowly developed into a resort location where people, especially Blacks, could rent a cabin or a room at a lodge high in the mountains. Lots were also available for sale where one could build a private cabin adjacent to the commercial property. Lincoln Hills became a popular destination for summer vacationers in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s. It continues to be a location for outdoor relaxation and recreation today.5

Another significant event in this history was the establishment of camp Atwater in 1921 by Reverend Dr. William N. DeBerry. It was created as a summer camp especially for Black boys and girls at a time when most summer camps were segregated. It is the first known summer camp dedicated to serving Black and African American children. Camp Atwater is located in Massachusetts on the shores of Lake Lashaway. The camp is still serving kids nearly 100 years later.6

Rev. DeBerry was a visionary and anthropologist who worked hard to serve his community. He spearheaded the establishment of several church ministries dedicated to the community and especially children. These include a boy's and girl's club, women’s home, and education programs among others. He deserves to be remembered for his contributions.7

Thanks to civil rights promotion by leaders like Dr. DeBerry and to changing cultural dynamics, discussion of integration in many facets of society became ever more common. Summer camps were among those places where activists called for desegregation. In 1945 the American Camps Association became one of the first interstate camp organizations to call for inclusive summer camps. As a centralized association for summer camp leaders, it had the influence to affect change. Thanks to the ACA, camps across the United States slowly began to integrate.8

The YMCA has long provided recreational opportunities to African Americans in the United States and around the world. The first “Black YMCA” was founded in 1853 by Anthony Bowen, a former slave, only two years after the first YMCA was established in the U.S. It was located in Washington D.C.9 Others soon followed and the organization grew rapidly. The YMCA again changed recreation when they opened Camp Dudley in 1885. Because of the broad influence of the “Y”, Camp Dudley and other YMCA summer camps helped to popularize the summer camp movement across the Nation until it became a staple of American childhood. As talk of integration became common in the 1930’s and ‘40’s the YMCA leaders realized change was needed. However, at the organization level, leaders were hesitant to push camps to integrate across the country because in some regions of the country this change could have negative consequences. Instead, they left this decision up to local camp leadership. Some within the YMCA helped to improve outdoor recreation opportunities for Blacks when they began integrating camps.

First was Camp Custer, opened in 1944 in New York to serve an interracial clientele. Due to the dramatic success it achieved, in the first season, other camps in the region began integrating the following year in 1945. YMCA camps continued to integrate across the country in the following two decades with some leading the way and others only changing because of outside pressure. Summer camps run by the YMCA helped to show other camps what was possible and set a national precedent for interracial camps.10

1963 was a landmark year for the Civil Rights movement. It was the year of the March On Washington which helped to thrust the movement into the national spotlight. It was at this march that Martin Luther King Jr. gave his famous “I Have A Dream” speech. Another landmark event took place that year that helped pave the way for African Americans to access the outdoors. In the same issue of Ebony Magazine that reported the March On Washington was another report on one of the first African American mountain climbers in North America. Ebony reported that Charles Madison Crenchaw had been selected as the first Black person to attempt to climb Mt. Denali, the highest mountain in North America. The actual climb took place in 1964. Crenchaw made a successful summit and returned as a conqueror. His success became symbolic of the mountains all African Americans were seeking to conquer through the Civil Rights movement. But more than that, Crenchaw showed that mountain climbing, and the outdoors, was a place for all races. He continued climbing for multiple decades and his story still provides inspiration.
Crenchaw enjoyed climbing because it gave him a sense of “oneness with God.”11 This is a prime reason many people have enjoyed the outdoors throughout history. It is refreshing to be close to God among his Creation.

Despite all the success of the Civil Rights movement in the latter half of the 20th Century, decades of statistics have shown low participation of minorities, including Black people, in outdoor recreation and visits to national and state parks. There is a myriad of complex reasons for this including socioeconomic barriers as well as cultural barriers. Many individuals, politicians, and companies have been working to address these barriers. Some of these individuals deserve mention for the impact they have had and for carrying forward the work of earlier civil rights activists.

In 1996 two college students began a friendship that would become a nationwide movement. GirlTrek was formed in 2012 by T. Morgan Dixon and Vanessa Garrison and encourages women to use walking as a practical first step to inspire healthy living for themselves, their families and communities. Part of GirlTrek’s mission is to encourage African-American families to experience, protect and reclaim green spaces. Through walking outdoors they desire to, “Pioneer a health movement for African-American women and girls grounded in civil rights history and principles through walking campaigns, community leadership, and health advocacy.” GirlTrek has nearly 450 teams around the country and continues to grow.12

Another organization working to continue the legacy and help African Americans enjoy nature is Outdoor Afro. It is a nonprofit founded in 2009 that hosts outings, events, and workshops for many types of activities. These activities include backpacking, rock climbing, hiking, yoga, and others. Outdoor Afro serves over 30,000 people, and continues to grow. They seek to help Black people from every walk of life experience and enjoy the green spaces around them. At the same time, they work to share stories both present and past of individuals who have encountered nature in meaningful or inspiring ways. These stories help participants engage with the past and look to the future. Outdoor Afro is all about helping people have a good time and building community simultaneously.13

The history of Black people and their ability to access and enjoy natural spaces in the U.S.A. has been a story of freedom and civil rights; of hero’s, leaders and visionaries. The work is not over. Continued efforts are needed by individuals, communities, and organizations. Individuals like Dr. William N. DeBerry and organizations like Outdoor Afro and the American Camps Association. Individuals who will stand up, despite the costs and promote equality, freedom, and the ability to enjoy and preserve nature. People who will help to create a better future for the next generation. As Robert G. Stanton, first African American Director of the National Parks Service said, "if early on people develop an environmental ethic and an appreciation of their natural and cultural heritage, they will take that with them as they become a member of the Senate, become a president of a bank, or a grocer down at the corner store, or a carpenter."14


Written by David F. Garner


1. Richard Allen, The Life, Experience, and Gospel Labours of the Rt. Rev. Richard Allen (Philadelphia: Martin & Boden Printers, 1833),

2. “A Brief History of Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church,” Mother Bethel online, accessed December 1, 2018,

3. Scott E. Giltner. Hunting and Fishing In The New South: Black Labor and White Leisure after the Civil War (Baltimore: The John Hopkins University Press, 2008).

4. Alison Rose Jefferson. “Inkwell, Matha’s Vineyard (1890s- ),” Black Past online, last modified 2017,

5. Shereen Marisol Meraji, Laura Krantz. “During Segregation, A Mountain Oasis Gave Black Families A Summer Escape,” NPR online, last modified August 16, 2015,

6. Elwood Watson. “Camp Atwater (1921- ),” Black Past online, last modified 2017,

7. “Our History,” St. John’s Congregational Church online, accessed December 2, 2018,

8. “Establishing Racial Good Will through Camping,” Camping 17, no. 5 (May 1945): 9.

9. “History - 1800-1860s,” YMCA online, accessed December 2, 2018,

10. Leslie Paris. Children's Nature: The Rise of the American Summer Camp. (New York: New York University Press, 2008), 261.

11. James Edward Mills. The Adventure Gap: Changing the Face of the Outdoors, (Seattle: Mountaineers Books, 2014), n.p.

12. "Our Story," Girl Trek online, accessed December 2, 2018,

13. Kirsta Karlson. "Outdoor Afro Connects Participants To The Outdoors And To Black History," REI online, last modified April 10, 2018,

14. Janet A. McDonnell. Oral History Interview With Robert G. Stanton, (Washington DC: National Park Service Department of the Interior, 2006): 51,

Photo credit: Unknown. Copyright - Public Domain