By Shawndra Miller, Communications manager, Central Indiana Land Trust
In honor of Black History Month, we’d like to lift up some Black voices of the American environmental movement. Though often unsung, these and many other individuals deserve our gratitude for their leadership, resilience, and innovation.
George Washington Carver – agricultural scientist/inventor – was born into slavery but developed hundreds of products using peanuts, sweet potatoes, and soybeans. The first Black man to receive a bachelor of science degree, he taught at Tuskegee University for decades, conducting research that would prove valuable to farmers – and to the environment.
He showed cash-strapped farmers that they could avoid commercial feed, instead feeding acorns to their hogs. He pioneered ways to fertilize croplands with swamp muck instead of commercial additives. He also developed the idea of crop rotation after noting that years of cotton crops had resulted in soil depletion. His tests showed that growing nitrogen-fixing plants like peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes restored the soils. Yield increased dramatically when the acreage was returned to cotton crops after a few years.
Harriet Tubman, celebrated conductor on the Underground Railroad, served as a scout, spy, guerrilla soldier and nurse for the Union Army during the Civil War. According to an Audubon article, she was also an incredible naturalist and outdoorswoman. Her sweeping knowledge of the region’s environment and wildlife enabled her survival as she shepherded enslaved people to safety. She used a signature birdcall to communicate, skillfully imitating the barred owl call of Who cooks for you? Who cooks for you-all?
In more recent history, Dr. Robert Bullard has been called the father of environmental justice for his work with marginalized communities hardest hit by environmental degradation. His interest in the topic began when he noticed that every landfill in Houston, Texas, was sited in predominately black neighborhoods. He helped organize the First National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit in 1991, where 17 principles of environmental justice were drafted.
The late Hazel Johnson is known as “the mother of environmental justice.” In the 1970s, she founded People for Community Recovery in Chicago to boost environmental awareness and encourage a more sustainable society. She was instrumental in passing laws directing federal agencies to address their disproportionate adverse health/environmental impacts on minority and low-income populations.
Meanwhile, Audrey Peterman is a leader in the movement to make America’s public lands relevant to every demographic group in our population. She has long served on the board of the National Parks Conservation Association. She has authored several books, including Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care.
Biologist Dr. Mamie Parker is another trailblazing conservationist. She was the first Black woman to serve as the assistant director of Fisheries and Habitat Conservation. At the 2022 Indiana Wildlife Federation annual conference, Dr. Parker described encountering harassment in her chosen field. “I’ve been told many times, not just as a woman, but a Black woman, that I didn’t belong,” she said. She went on to receive the U.S. government’s highest honor for career service employees for her accomplishments, the Presidential Rank Meritorious Service Award. At the conference, she encouraged attendees to help make the outdoors safe for all people and to forge new partnerships toward greater inclusion.
Join us in saluting these inspiring leaders.
Headquartered on The Old Northside, the Central Indiana Land Trust stewards nature preserves throughout the central third of the state. We strive to make our preserves welcoming to all. More information: conservingindiana.org.
PHOTO ABOVE: George Washington Carver sits front row-center in this historical photograph.