It’s a false notion that the African-American history of our nation is often confined to the walls of museums and the granite curves of artistic monuments. No — this history is too tumultuous to be tamed by man-made structures, too complex to be hidden away on shelves or even showcased on stages. Perhaps black history belongs, like the stories of African oral tradition, out in the wild. After all, how could the African-American story not be intertwined with the rugged nature that was the backdrop to early settlers and frontiersmen? How could black history not be a part of the tales of pioneers and trailblazers of the outdoors…echoing in parks, mountains, gardens, and caves?
For those that want to hear a different take on the black experience in America, this is a chance to listen; listen to the wind rustling through the leaves, the trickles of water running over stone, the buzzing of bees over colorful flowers. This is a chance to learn about black history like you’ve never heard it before – through its unique connection to the great outdoors.
These are the outdoor experiences that can teach you about black history. Come along, and take a walk with us as we visit them…
The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad National Monument – Maryland
Harriett Tubman is no stranger to the fight against slavery. She played an important role in the Underground Railroad — the network of abolitionists and activists that helped people escape slavery — and was known as “Moses of her People”. While visitors can learn all about Tubman and the Underground Railroad at this monument, a more significant backstory is told by the neighboring Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge. It was here that Tubman spent years as a farm slave and timber laborer before she escaped slavery herself. In her time working in this rough and unforgiving environment, Tubman honed her outdoor survival skills and confidence in maneuvering stealthily in both day and night. These skills would come to save her life and the life of dozens of men, women, and children during the countless times she guided people from the clutches of Maryland slaveholders to safety in neighboring Canada (the northern US was still unsafe for escaped slaves).
“I was conductor of the Underground Railroad for eight years, and I can say what most conductors can’t say – I never ran my train off the track and I never lost a passenger.” — Harriett Tubman
Over 11 years, Tubman kept daringly coming back to the Eastern Shore of Maryland, rescuing some 70 slaves in about 13 perilous expeditions. Walking through the refuge today, it doesn’t take much to imagine Tubman in her twenties, longingly looking over the waters and up into the sky, envying the majestic birds as they flew away with the one thing that she truly craved the most — freedom.
Sequoia & Kings Canyon National Park – California
Colonel Charles Young was already a legend in black military circles. Being only the third black man to graduate from the US Military Academy at West Point in 1884 and the first African American to reach the rank of colonel, he had broken a lot of barriers to get to where he was. In 1903, the highly decorated colonel was given a new assignment: he was to be the first black military superintendent of a national park. Arriving in Sequoia National Park along with about 500 Buffalo Soldiers, he knew he had his task cut out for him. For almost a decade the park had not had the funding or resources to be maintained by the military as was originally intended. Roads were nonexistent, while wildlife poachers and illegal grazing were rampant. Never one to back away from a challenge, Young, along with his men, rolled his sleeves up and got to work. They completed the first usable road in Sequoia into the Giant Forest, home of the world’s largest trees, at a blistering pace. Not satisfied with achieving the bare minimum, Young and his men went on to extend the road to the base of the famous Moro Rock, and then went on to build an arboretum in Yosemite.
While you can traverse many of these trails today, you can’t forget the harsh terrain and lack of technology that these African-American soldiers had to face during their hectic schedule of planning and construction. An additional challenge would have been the institutionalized racism they had to face even within the military they served. Perhaps, in this pristine natural environs, many of them found peace and purpose far removed from the stresses of their segregated lives. Whatever odds they faced, Colonel Young and his men have made their mark on some of the most beautiful places in the US, making them accessible to visitors for as long as the park’s giant sequoias continue to be in existence.
Martin Luther King Jr. National Historical Park – Georgia
While it encompasses numerous urban sites, this collection of locations is a must-see for those who want to enjoy being outdoors while also learning about black history. There is no way to overstate the importance of Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement that knocked down the door of inequality. All throughout the US, there are numerous monuments and museums dedicated to this bold visionary, but none do a better job than highlighting key passages of his life, and the places that molded his thoughts and gave shape to his vision for the future, than this national historical park in Atlanta. You can see his childhood home — a place where he probably spent hours listening to his father, Martin Luther King Sr., who was also a pastor and a civil right activist, talk about faith and action against injustice. You can stop by Ebenezer Baptist Church where both King and his father served as ministers. And, you can even see his final resting place alongside his wife Coretta Scott King. But one of the most interesting stops where you can spend a few minutes and ponder on King’s words amidst a serene and colorful natural backdrop is the “I Have a Dream” International World Peace Rose Garden.
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” — Martin Luther King Jr.
Everything about the rose garden is symbolic. Its starburst design is to remind people of how brightly King’s life and ideals shone. The band of red roses that weaves its way through the garden is to honor all African Americans who have contributed a great deal to their country. The bands of white roses highlight the bond between Dr. King and his inspiration for the non-violent movement, Mahatma Gandhi. But that’s not all. The serene little garden still blooms with King’ message of love, dignity, and equality; every year students from local and global schools get the opportunity to have their poems of peace installed in the garden for an entire year.
Mammoth Cave National Park – Kentucky
Have you ever heard of Stephen Bishop? How about Materson Bransford, or Ed Bishop? Probably not, and you’re not alone. Every year, thousands of visitors come to see the world’s largest cave system, Mammoth Cave, and are able to take advantage of experienced guides to show them around in this natural wonder. But, did you know that the very first guides who knew these caves like the back of their hands…were African American slaves? In the face of extreme racism and adversity, these guides had a passion for cave exploration and were instrumental in mapping out some of its most hard-to-reach parts.
For all their hard work and dedication, these guides at Mammoth Cave had to bare the inhumane yoke of slavery and, later on, the humiliation of structured racism. They took great joy in the work they did as guides, but often found hardship and heartbreak in their personal lives. Stephen Bishop gained his freedom in 1856, but died the very next year — at the age of 37. Materson Bradford (pictured above), despite his faithful service, could not stop his wife’s owner from selling three of their four children as slaves. Much of what we know today about the cave system would not have come to light if it was not for these fearless guides. You can still pay your respects to many of them, as they chose to be buried near the caves to which they dedicated most of their lives.
Booker T Washington National Monument – Virginia
One of the finest African-American orators and educators, Booker T Washington was one of the last black leaders who was born into slavery. He was born and spent some of his childhood on a 207-acre tobacco farm, which now serves as a historical site under his name. Washington was determined to make the most of the few opportunities afforded him. Determined to get an education, he enrolled at the Hampton Normal and Agricultural Institute (now Hampton University) in Virginia and even worked there as a janitor to help pay for his expenses. He would later come back to join the staff at this very same institution. Washington was also the first president and chief developer of Tuskegee Normal and Industrial Institute (now Tuskegee University). With hard work and his knack for rallying support and gaining funds, he turned around the once-rundown institute into a well-equipped facility that could educate and empower young African Americans.
“Success is to be measured not so much by the position that one has reached in life as by the obstacles which he has overcome.” — Booker T Washington
When you visit the area today, you can learn all about Washingon’s life, his achievements, and his thoughts on how African Americans could gain the respect they deserved in America. With its quaint log cabins and lush greenery, you would almost forget the horrors and hardships experienced by slaves as they toiled day in and day out for their master. The grounds of the park have plenty of scenic spots for quiet reflection and picnicking, but there are also great guided tours, live farm animals and vegetable gardens that would have been around back in the day, as well as some amazing hiking trails through the woods.
Do you know of any other outdoor spots where you can experience black history? Share them with us in the comments.