Updated: Nov 8, 2021
You’ve heard of Davy Crockett. Now meet Lancelot Jones, Sylvia Stark and other Black outdoors pioneers who can redefine our notion of the natural world.
by Dr. Carolyn Finney
In 1987 I embarked on a six-month backpacking trip around the world. The adventure ignited a love so fierce for the feel of the earth beneath my feet that I spent the better part of five years traveling through Africa and Asia, returning home in between trips to earn enough money so that I could hit the trail once more. (The Black author and activist bell hooks once told me of my travels, “That’s the ‘Eat Pray Love’ I want to read.”)
During this time, I devoured every piece of travel literature I could find — stories of individuals crossing deserts, climbing mountains and sailing oceans — but I never found a story about anyone who looked like me. I was no less inspired but I must admit I was frustrated. Later, in 2003, while working on my doctorate, I experienced déjà vu as I scanned the library shelves looking for those Black stories within the context of U.S. history and the environmental movement.
Where were the Black stories of freedom and possibility forged on the trail?
Black people have always “formed relationships with the features and creatures of the natural world,” said Tiya Miles, a history professor at Harvard and the author of “All That She Carried: The Journey of Ashley’s Sack, a Black Family Keepsake.” And spurred in part by the events of 2020, we are now witnessing a broader effort to uncover, recover and elevate Black stories of revelation and joy in relation to the American landscape.
The narratives we tell and the myths we hold dear are a reflection of who we are and who we aspire to be — and the American story of the Great Outdoors is no exception. It is a tale nearly as old as America itself, built on the notion that our collective striving and surviving in a hostile landscape are a testament to our rugged individualism and independence. You likely know the names of the central characters: people like Daniel Boone, Laura Ingalls Wilder and Davy Crockett — larger-than-life figures who still conjure a pioneer lifestyle of American independence, conquest and grit. What are lesser known are the names that have been left out of that narrative — and how our mythology might look different if they were included.
“When I hear ‘mythology,’ I think of something that isn’t based in reality,” Dr. Miles said. This is especially true when the established mythology often sidesteps slavery, the scope of atrocities against Indigenous people and the subjugation of land. But those inspiring stories of Black adventurers that I craved? They do exist — just outside the familiar canon. These are the Black women and men who made their way through the wilderness to create homes, raise families and foster their dreams, despite living in a country at a time in which they were denied their basic rights. The American story of the Great Outdoors, with all its complexity and fault lines, is their story as well.
One of these legends-in-the-making was Israel Lafayette Jones, born in North Carolina in 1858. A farm laborer and stevedore, Jones left North Carolina in 1892 and made his way to South Florida in search of work. In 1895 he married Mozelle Albury and they had two sons named King Arthur Lafayette and Sir Lancelot Garfield. In 1898, Jones purchased Old Rhodes Key, an island north of Key Largo, and started farming pineapples and key limes; he went on to become one of Florida’s major fruit producers.
When the Biscayne National Monument was founded 70 years later, in 1968, his son Lancelot Jones opted to sell the family property to the National Park Service rather than to developers. While this story is fairly well known in Florida (Oct. 13 is known as Lancelot Jones Day in the state), it is largely absent from the national narrative of environmentalism and preservation. As is the story of Sylvia Stark, an American Black woman born into slavery in Missouri in 1839, who became one of the original homesteaders on Salt Spring Island off the coast of Vancouver, British Columbia. Her father bought her freedom for $900 — the equivalent of roughly $30,000 today — and the family moved to California by way of the Oregon Trail. Stark later married and moved to Salt Spring Island, where she carved a home out of the wilderness. She lived to the ripe old age of 106. I have to imagine her stories could have given Laura Ingalls Wilder’s tales a run for their money.
Then there’s Marvyne Elisabeth “MaVynee” Betsch, also referred to as “The Beach Lady.” Born in 1935, she grew up in a wealthy Black neighborhood in Jacksonville, Fla. Her great-grandfather A.L. Lewis and his company Afro-American Life Insurance purchased Amelia Island, where American Beach became the premier Black beach resort in Florida in the 1940s — a place where Black society could find respite from the stress of living under Jim Crow laws.
In the 1970s, Betsch donated nearly all of her personal wealth to environmental causes, including studies of butterflies and rainforest reclamation efforts. She also became an avid advocate for the protection and preservation of American Beach and a protector of the Black stories that are part of its history. Some of these inspirational Black figures still walk among us. One of them is John Francis, also known as the Planetwalker. As the son of a West Indian immigrant, he found himself deeply disturbed in 1971 by an oil spill, caused by two tankers colliding, near his home in Northern California. In response, he spent the next 22 years walking across the United States and South America to raise awareness for environmental injustice. Dr. Francis also earned his Ph.D. during this journey — and accomplished all of this without talking for 17 of those years, a silent protest against our mismanagement of the planet. Dr. Francis formed his own organization, Planetwalk, and became a National Geographic education fellow. But in my many conversations with him over the years, he’s shared the challenges of having his story supported by and shared throughout environmental circles. “It’s about human rights and civil rights and gender equality and economic equity and all the ways we relate to each other,” Dr. Francis said recently. When he thinks now of Black outdoor mythology, he said, his mind turns to the Black explorers who were part of voluntary expeditions to the Americas before the trans-Atlantic slave trade began, or to Matthew Henson, one of the first men to reach the North Pole in 1909, alongside Robert Peary. But, he said, he also thinks of kindness. One of the biggest environmental lessons he learned on his decades-long trek was that how we treat each other manifests itself in the environment. The purpose of a shared narrative around the outdoors “is not to tell people how they should be,” Dr. Francis said. “But to inspire people to be who they are. To discover and be that person that they know that they want to be and that they are thus beautiful.”
His sentiment echoes a statement by Rue Mapp, who in 2009 founded Outdoor Afro, a national nonprofit that promotes Black engagement with nature. According to Ms. Mapp, “The trees don’t know what color I am. The birds don’t know what gender is. The flowers don’t know how much money I have in my bank account. I think we can rely on nature to be the great equalizer for us so we can shed that weight.” It’s not easy being green because it’s not easy being seen. But along with Ms. Mapp, other Black leaders are working to rewrite the traditional outdoors mythology and reimagine nature as “a great equalizer.” Teresa Baker founded the Outdoor C.E.O. Diversity Pledge as a way to nudge outdoor retailers to better serve Black and brown communities. Faith E. Briggs, a filmmaker and long-distance runner who works in the outdoor industry, believes that “everyone has a right to clean air, clean water and access to green spaces.” Her 20,000-plus followers on Instagram agree. Then there are the many Black people who are not on social media, or mentioned in books, or promoted by influential organizations, but who are nevertheless instrumental in the ongoing care for and love of nature — whether they write, hunt, garden, forage, manage or otherwise commune with it. Black Americans have always been adept at “making way out of no way,” as the popular Black expression puts it. Black environmentalists like Dr. Francis and Ms. Betsch engage in what Saidiya Hartman of Columbia University has called the “critical labor of the positive,” an effort to reimagine the landscape in a way that radically reconsiders who African Americans are — and what we are capable of in the outdoors — from our own perspective. If our past mythologies about the wilderness reveal a legacy of contradictions, they also represent an opportunity to, as Dr. Miles suggested, cultivate “a higher level of awareness and appreciation of this earth that we all depend upon.” “We have a lot to get our arms around,” Dr. Miles said.
I recalled my own revelation in the shadow of Mount Everest. In 1993, I did a two-week trek in Sagarmatha National Park in Nepal and stood at 16,000 feet with Everest behind me (the closest you can get without climbing equipment) and wondered when a Black woman would climb the world’s tallest peak. I had been living in Nepal and never saw anyone who looked like me on the streets or the trails. But my imagination knew no bounds. So in 2006, when Sophia Danenburg, an avid mountaineer and Harvard graduate, became the first Black woman to climb Mount Everest at age 34, I smiled to myself, knowingly. Ain’t no mountain high enough ….
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