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The Grim History of America's Green Spaces

“If you connect the dots throughout history, it becomes extremely clear that people of color in America have been systematically excluded from nature,’ Kanjae “Jerry” Lee, assistant professor of North Carolina State’s College of Natural Resources (Moore, 2022).


When you read the statement above, does this not match the image that you have of the United States National Parks? Have you always assumed that parks and other public lands were open and inviting to everyone in the surrounding community? If you did, then you are not alone and Lee’s statement likely came as a shock. Unfortunately, the United States greenspaces have a history of exclusivity which has deterred many marginalized communities from these now public spaces. It all started with America’s first park.



America’s First Park - Central Park New York City, NY

Central Park, is the rolling green space seated in the center of one of the most densely populated cities in North America. It is difficult to argue the importance of this space considering the many benefits associated with having an accessible public park with so many attractions, the issues lie in its conception and placement.


Image : Central Park, New York City in 1929. Source: Library of Congress.

Seneca Village was established in 1825 when John and Elizabeth Whitehead divided and sold their land as 200 lots. 25-year-old African-American shoeshiner, Andrew Williams, kick-started this community when he purchased the first lot for $125. Soon after store clerk Epiphany Davis and the AME Zion Church followed. The community was slowly built up as some community members began to garden, raise livestock, and fish from the Hudson River. By the 1950s, Seneca village had 50 homes, three churches, a school for African-American children, and a burial ground (Central Park Conservancy, 2018).


Map of pre-Central Park landscape showing Seneca Village. Source: New York City Municipal Archives.

This beautiful community offered a great reprieve from the difficult social-climate present after New York abolished slavery in 1827. It seemed that the residents of Seneca Village prospered in their community, with around half of the residents owning their homes by 1855. This also came with the right to vote for at least 10 members of the village. In 1821, New York State required that African-American men owned at least $250 in property and held a residency for at least three years to vote. This was very rare at the time, as voter suppression for communities of color was very common (Central Park Conservancy, 2018).


Despite this, during the 1840s, several wealthy and powerful white businessmen, newspaper editors, and political leaders began lobbying to develop Seneca Village into Central park. They pushed the city to start this project by describing its current residents as squatters living in shacks when the space had the potential to beautify the city amid its growing population. However, their true intentions were to increase their property values while creating an open green space for middle- and upper-class white families living in the city. The development was approved in 1853 and construction began in 1857 (Moore, 2022).


The problems for the citizens of Seneca Village only compounded as they were displaced from their homes, the economy took a turn for the worse, and the jobs they were promised in the development of Central Park were, instead, given to white workers (Moore, 2022).


“A lot of the injustices we see happening in outdoor spaces today actually began over a century ago in Central Park. It marked the start of gentrification and the displacement of communities of color to build parks for the white middle and upper class,” commented Lee (Moore, 2022).


In today’s world with sky-high rent, especially in a destination like New York, it may not surprise you that most apartments with a view of Central park range from four to 11 million dollars for spaces that range from just 1,000-2,400 square feet (Biggs, 2019). To put that into perspective, a 1,752-square-foot home with the surrounding land sells for about 4.5 million dollars (Zillow, accessed 2022). Additionally, the city of New York is still predominantly white, with the majority being 41.33% of the population (World Population Review, accessed 2022). The intentions of the founders of Central Park are still present, as are the scars that those intentions left.



Establishment of the National Park Service


“For the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” Theodore Roosevelt.


This inspiring quote is etched into the Roosevelt Arch, found at the north entrance to the United States’ first national park, Yellowstone. Alongside Madison Grant and John Muir, Roosevelt created the national parks system that continues its progress toward preserving large habitats and green spaces across the United States. Similar to the creation of Central Park, there is a darker intention behind those seemingly well-meaning words.


The last photo of Chief Washakie (pointing on the far left). Fort Washakie was relocated to the Wind River Reservation in 1871 where troops were stationed until 1909. Source: National Archives Catalog.

According to Lee, the establishment of the national parks was a result of Grant, Muir, and Roosevelt’s fears that white Americans were losing social dominance (Moore, 2022). Similar to the creation of Central Park, these men promoted the idea that cities were dirty and inhabited by immigrants and people of color. Muir, the first president of the Sierra Club and considered to be the “father of National Parks,” stated that Indigenous people “seemed to have no right place in the landscape,” (Brown, n.d.).


On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone National Park Protection Act into law (Hogan, 2020). This put aside two million acres of public land meant to be preserved “from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within,” (History, n.d.). Within those lands, 26 native tribes lived and were subsequently removed to maintain the space (Hogan, 2020).


“The big myth about Yellowstone is that it’s a pristine wilderness untouched by humanity,” says Douglas MacDonald, a Native American pre-contact historian. “Native Americans were hunting and gathering here for at least 11,000 years. They were pushed out by the government after the park was established. The Army was brought in to keep them out, and the public was told that Native Americans were never here in the first place because they were afraid of the geysers,” (Grant, 2021).


Segregated signage at Lewis Mountain Park, likely taken between 1939-1950. Source: The National Park Service.

The injustices did not end there within the parks services. Upon the establishment of the National Park Service in 1916, the Department of the Interior oversaw 14 national parks, and the Indigenous people who once lived there were now in reservations as wards of the government. Additionally, Jim Crow laws barred African-Americans from nearly all state and national parks. African-American community members were expected to use “Negro areas” next to White parks or parks specifically built for African-Americans. By 1952, African-Americans only had access to 12 of the 180 state parks in the nine southern states. Latino Americans also felt the discrimination as they were also barred from many state parks in Texas. (Moore, 2022)


Though these parks have been desegregated, there are still disparities in park use between different communities. This disparity in park use is now called the ‘nature gap,’ and is a deeply discussed topic, especially since 2020.


The Current Concerns with the ‘Nature Gap’

The phrase ‘Nature Gap’ refers to the evidence that shows that people of color are less likely to spend time in green spaces (Brown, n.d.). All of the history listed above and more has led to the nature gap, this stereotype, and the misunderstanding that the outdoors are not meant for people of color.


In 2020 Kerry-Ann Hamilton went on a vacation away from the Zoom calls and quarantined life to feel more connected to nature. “As a Black immigrant woman, I often find that national parks can be lonely places. I grew up in Jamaica and moved to D.C. in 1999 to attend Howard University. On trips to America’s parks, I was curious and concerned about not seeing others who look like me,” said Hamilton (Hamilton, 2020). According to National Park Service data, only 23% of visitors to the 419 national parks were people of color, despite making up 42% of the United States population (Ebbs and Dwyer, 2020).



Hamilton and her wife in Yellowstone National Park in 2019. Source: The Washington Post.

The psychological scars of past acts of injustice are still present today. Many people of color do not have a family history of enjoying nature or are physically removed from it due to redlining. Additionally, there is fear of violence in these more secluded spaces. Another issue is not necessarily accessibility but representing how different communities use nature. It is common for us to think of hiking, fishing, and biking as great ways to enjoy nature, but for some communities, it may look more like family cookouts and reunions in park shelters (Hamilton, 2020).


What are we doing?

With the culture in the United States changing to be more inclusive and understanding, many groups and organizations are working hard to make green spaces more inclusive and recognize the negative histories that are present there.


The Sierra Club

In 2020, Executive Director Michael Brune recognized and denounced the Sierra Club’s founder, John Muir, for his racist views. “He made derogatory comments about Black people and Indigenous peoples that drew on deeply harmful racist stereotypes, though his views evolved later in his life. As the most iconic figure in Sierra Club history, Muir’s words and actions carry an especially heavy weight. They continue to hurt and alienate Indigenous people and people of color,” (Melley, 2020). The Sierra Club continued to make changes as they worked to redesign their leadership structure so that Black, Indigenous, and other leaders of color make up the majority of the administration team that makes the top-level organizational decisions. The club also pledged to continue dialogues and investments in diversity and inclusion training for their staff.


National Park System

As of 2020, the National Park System’s workforce was 83.6% white. The gap is slightly wider in park ranger positions, with 84.5% being white but slightly slimmer for superintendents at 79.8%. The workforce for the National Park System is deeply divided, and much of the problem is derived from systemic issues throughout the hiring process. Most of their positions are filled with temporary summer hires that turn into permanent positions, but their summer hires are even less diverse with only 2.3% being African-American. “In order to get one of those entry-level jobs in the service, you have to serve multiple seasons as a seasonal, which means you have to have some economic status in order to do that kind of job,” explains Jonathan Jarvis, former National Park Service Director. More systemic changes need to be made to make opportunities available for groups of color. (Jacobs and Hotakainen, 2020)


Outdoor Afro

Outdoor Afro is an organization that connects African-American communities with land, water, and wildlife through education, recreation, and conservation. There are chapters across the United States that put on events to invite and teach communities of color about nature and what they can do to get involved.


Hispanic Access Foundation

This organization helps Latinos with a variety of services, which includes becoming environmental stewards and how to advocate for better health. This organization encourages community and civic engagement and connects individuals, families, and groups with the resources to do so.


Outdoorsy Diva

Lauren Gay, the Outdoorsy Diva, on one of her many adventures. Source: https://outdoorsydiva.com/about-lauren-gay-outdoorsydiva/

I feel like nature is a right to everyone, and we should all feel safe enough to experience it,” said Lauren Gay, a Tampa, Florida mother who chronicles her experiences as a woman of color in the wilderness on her blog and podcast “Outdoorsy Diva.” Gay started her blog to inspire everyone to enjoy the outdoors, no matter who they are.


What can you do?

First, go and support the individuals, groups, and organizations listed above and others like them. Showing your support is a great first step in creating an open community and showing that you are ready to work with different people and groups. Connecting with these organizations only grows their support, and you are more likely to share this information with friends and family who may also be interested. It is all about creating a community and opening the conversation.


If you are in a position where you can organize events and invite people into natural spaces, take this advice: “In my experience, in order to add to the recreational inventory of young people in urban environments, we need to expose them to at least four positive experiences in nature,” explains Mickey Fearn, former deputy director for communications and community assistance for the National Park Service. “We must take them from surviving the experience of their first trip to ultimately enjoying the outdoors. That requires time and the support of trusted local partners,” (Hamilton, 2020).


Another step you can take is to learn as much as you can about how to be more inclusive and to understand the perspectives and struggles of these communities. There are resources available for you to learn about histories, which will allow you to be involved in the conversation. This knowledge will also allow you to grow as an individual.


Acknowledgement

I would like to conclude by acknowledging that I am a white woman, and therefore this blog is written from the perspective of a white woman using available resources. This also means that I am not directly affected by the negative history of these national parks in the same way that indigenous communities and communities of color are. Please, use this blog and others in this series as a jumping-off point for your knowledge and understanding. Read the following articles and find more primary sources to learn from.


Discussion

  1. After reading this article, look up the history of your favorite local and national parks. Understanding the history of the spaces you frequent is an important first step. Learn who lived on the land before it was claimed as a park and how that land was used. Learn why the space was turned into a park and how it might have changed over time.

  2. If this article was completely new information, sit and ask yourself the following questions:

  3. Why have I not been taught this information previously?

  4. Why is this information not more openly highlighted and shared?

  5. What are small steps that I can personally take to ensure the public spaces in my community are welcoming and safe?

  6. What types of events could you organize to create experiences and opportunities for communities of color? What local organizations could you collaborate with?

 

Resources

Biggs, C. (2019, May 10). Rooms with a View (and How Much You’ll Pay for Them). The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/10/realestate/rooms-with-a-view-and-how-much-youll-pay-for-them.html


Brown, K. (n.d.). The Nature Gap: What It Is and Why It Means More Black People Need to Go Outside. Black Girl Nerds. https://blackgirlnerds.com/the-nature-gap-what-it-is-and-why-it-means-more-black-people-need-to-go-outside/


Brune, M. (2020, July 22). Pulling Down Our Monuments. Sierra Club. https://www.sierraclub.org/michael-brune/2020/07/john-muir-early-history-sierra-club


The Central Park Conservancy. (2018, January 18). Before Central Park: The Story of Seneca Village. https://www.centralparknyc.org/articles/seneca-village#:~:text=The%20creation%20of%20Central%20Park&text=In%201853%2C%20the%20New%20York,first%20major%20landscaped%20public%20park.


Ebbs, S. and Dwyer D. (2020, July 1). America’s national parks face an existential crisis over race. American Broadcasting Center. https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/americas-national-parks-face-existential-crisis-race/story?id=71528972


Grant, R. (2021, January). The Lost History of Yellowstone: Debunking the myth that the great national park was a wilderness untouched by humans. Smithsonian Magazine. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/history/lost-history-yellowstone-180976518/#:~:text=%E2%80%9CNative%20Americans%20were%20hunting%20and,were%20afraid%20of%20the%20geysers.%E2%80%9D


Hamilton, K. (2020, September 17). National parks are travel’s next frontier in the movement for racial equality. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/travel/2020/09/17/national-parks-travel-black/


History. (n.d.). March 1, 1872: Yellowstone Park Established. https://www.history.com/this-day-in-history/yellowstone-park-established


Hogan, E. (2020, December 10). Green colonization: the racist history of national parks. The Lovepost. https://www.thelovepost.global/decolonise-your-mind/articles/green-colonisation-racist-history-national-parks


Jacobs, J. and Hotakainen, R. (2020, June 25). Racist roots, lack of diversity haunt national parks. Environment and Energy Publishing. https://www.eenews.net/articles/racist-roots-lack-of-diversity-haunt-national-parks/


Melly, B. (2020, July 22). Sierra Club calls out founder John Muir for racist views. The Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/climate-environment/sierra-club-calls-out-founder-john-muir-for-racist-views/2020/07/22/c72fe214-cc5e-11ea-99b0-8426e26d203b_story.html


Moore, A. (2022, February 21). Historic Discrimination to Blame for Diversity Gap in US parks, Expert Says. North Carolina State University; College of Natural Resources News. https://cnr.ncsu.edu/news/2022/02/historic-discrimination-to-blame-for-diversity-gap-in-us-parks-expert-says/


Oleniacz, L. (2022, February 3). Tracking Injustice in the History of U.S. Public Parks. North Carolina State University; News. https://news.ncsu.edu/2022/02/tracking-injustice-in-the-history-of-u-s-public-parks/


Organic Act: Act to Establish a National Park Service. (1916, August 25). National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/anps/anps_1i.htm


Yellowstone Act. (1872, March 1). National Park Service. https://www.nps.gov/parkhistory/online_books/anps/anps_1c.htm

 

Further Reading

“As Long as Grass Grows: The Indigenous Fight for Environmental Justice, from Colonization to Standing Rock Dina Gilio-Whitaker


“All the Real Indians Died Off: and 20 Other Myths About Native Americans Dina Gilio-Whitaker and Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz


“Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks” Mark David Spence

 

About The Author

Bri Hull is the Communications Associate at the Tallgrass Prairie Center. Originally from Kansas City, Missouri, Bri came to Iowa to attend Wartburg College. In her time in Iowa she developed an interest in environmental science and stayed to learn more about ways she can help her community. In her time with Green Iowa AmeriCorps, Bri hopes to learn how to become more green and how to reach out to her community to do the same.


This blog is one in a series as a part of her 2022-23 Professional Development Project. Her project focuses on increasing diversity and inclusion in our greenspaces.





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