4 Black Individuals in Environmental History: A look in into an often overlooked genre of environmentalism

Given the heightened enlightenment of the non-color society toward racial social segregation, it seems fitting to address a community that is often obscured behind the curtain of history: Black environmentalists. 

Where the names of those who are remembered for their actions in the field of preservation, conservation, restoration and environmental politics are often of those who are white, it is important to remember that our global past is skewed toward white positions of power. This aspect of culture has attracted the spotlight of our history books, and has often left the Black global community in a social shadow of racial segregation. 

In an effort to illuminate a genre of activism and to balance an unbalanced record of those who embrace the natural world, here are 4 Black individuals who have demonstrated exemplary action in the field of social and environmental progression. 

1. George Washington Carver

Between his birth and death George Washington Carver overcame numerous odds to break ground on education and agriculture while sowing the seeds for America’s next big little cash crop. 

As one of the last legally bondage born African American children during the country’s volatile years of social transition, Carver’s exact birth day is unknown but records sometime between 1860 and 1865. He experienced a complicated early childhood that involved being stolen and traded, and ultimately he lost contact with his natural born parents. His former master Moses Carver and his wife Susan took to raising George Carver as their own and he locally became known as “the plant doctor” when his frail state and keen interest in the natural world made him more interested in digging into horticulture textbooks than digging into Moses’s feild. 

Despite being a gifted intellectual, Carver encountered difficulties in his early pursuit of schooling. Having been accepted academically but rejected racially by a Kansas University, he eventually enrolled in Iowa State and became the first Black individual to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in 1894. 

In 1896, Carver’s career took a turn toward the infamous when he received a letter of invitation from Booker T. Washington to work at the university of Tuskegee- an all Black university where Carver would remain employed for 47 years. During his time at Tuskegee, Carver intensely studied soil science and pioneered the practice of crop rotation. His aim was to bring to fruition a new and nutritious crop life to poor southern farmers whose fields had been malnourished from decades of cotton and tobacco farming. This ingenuity nurtured not only new life for American farming but also for an industry of a then little known cash crop: peanuts. 

Although he is not the father of peanut butter that he is often claimed to be, he is certainly the daddy of a delicious revolution. During his research at Tuskegee, Carver developed an obsession with peanuts and demonstrated that not only is the legume a righteous soil rejuvenator, but that it also can be broken down and used to make things like coffee, peanut sausage (what?), axel grease and even cosmetics. Exfoliating peanut mask anyone? 

We have to owe thanks to Carver for the accessibility of the peanut industry as we know it today. Even things like Food for the Sole’s own Triple Peanut Slaw would be much less practical to produce in an age without his influence. The FFTS family would like to extend a public and personal thank you to Carver for all of his dedicated work in the field of forward thinking food.  

2. Wangari Maathai 

As a feminine environmental activist, political influence and devout Kenyan patriot, Wangari Maathai earned an undeniable place on this list through a rooted legacy that branches out in different directions. 

Kenyan born in 1940 during the days of British rule, Maathai’s studiousness drove her in an educational direction that had hard headed resistance to rural African women. From Bachelors and Masters Degrees received in America, to being the first eastern and central African woman to receive a Ph.D (University of Nairobi), Wangari used her education to springboard herself into a lifetime commitment of fighting environmental and social oppression. 

When Maathai was young she felt a connection with trees and by the mid-1970’s she began to feel disturbed by the growing ecological decline of the East African region. Highlighted by unchecked clear cutting and the intimidating encroachment of the growing Sahara desert, Maathai’s concern motivated her to create her landmark social achievement- The Greenbelt Movement. 

Google’s Wangari Maathai 73rd birthday doodle.

Maathai’s Greenbelt organization began modestly in the form of a simple exchange program for roughly 10 cents paid for every tree planted by a Kenyan woman. This small initiative was enough to not only make a slow and sure positive ecological impact but also to empower independence among East African woman (a subject of which she was very passionate). This program began to bud and though early on it was limited only to funding by a skeptical Kenyan government, Greenbelt gained U.N. support and expanded regionally to cover countries like Ethiopia, Tanzania, Rwanda and Uganda under its canopy. This and Maathai’s numerous other political and environmental accomplishments grabbed the worlds attention, and in 2004 she became the first African Woman to be awarded the Nobel Prize. 

3. John Francis- The Planetwalker

John Francis is proof that actions speak louder than words.

John Francis, Planetwalker, Wood River Valley, Idaho. Photo by Glenn Oakley

Perhaps an environmentalist with a different (and certainly quieter) approach compared to others on this list, Francis is an individual who took to his feet in response to his worldly concerns. Having boycotted all petrol-driven vehicles in response to witnessing a massive oil spill in the San-Francisco bay, he spent 22 years between 1972 (at 26 years old) and 1994 walking wherever he went. On his birthday in 1973, in response to the frequent verbal conflict he engaged in regarding his decisions, he decided to go silent for one day to encourage himself and those around him to listen instead of quarreling with eachother. This vow of silence ended up lasting 17 years until Earth Day in 1990. 

TED TAlk link:https://embed.ted.com/e51652b3-7749-4043-968c-94212c519e80


One may believe that a lifestyle like Johns would lend to a life of social underachievement, but thus is not the case. John would go to attend 3 different universities after silently walking from school to school wielding nothing but his will and a banjo. This course, that traversed across California, Oregon, Washington, Montana and Wisconsin, ultimately culminated in a Ph.D and also involved student-teacher programs in which he instructed entire classrooms silently. 

Francis ended his vows of silence and self-propelled pledge in order to use cars and language as a tool to promote environmental awareness and also to inspire others with his story to take action in their lives.

4. Margie Richard

A member of the “cancer alley” community, Margie Richard spent her life and career in an uphill battle against a powerhouse of negative ecological influence. 

In Norco, Louisiana sits the neighborhood of Old Diamond- a four square block radius of 1,500 residents stifled between the towering tanks and vapor stacks of an oil plant and an oil refinery both owned by Shell corporation. This hot spot of petrochemical industry is the birthplace of Margie Richard, who’s family is fourth generation Norco born and is among the reportedly high amount of locals to experience ailments such as birth defects, cancer, asthma and bronchitis. Richard’s own sister died of sarcoidosis, a rare infection that affects one in a thousand people but has personally ailed three of Richards own peers in her community. 

After witnessing a horrific pipeline explosion in 1973 and a dramatic chemical accident in 1988 that leaked 159 millions pounds of toxins in the air, Richard (a schoolteacher) began her career of justice by forming the Concerned Citizens of Norco that sought resettlement costs from Shell for the local community. This modest beginning evolved into a 13 year campaign that grabbed the attention of scientists and environmentalists alike in a spearheaded effort to drill out reparations from the super corporations hard shelled officials.


Serving as a high level EPA committee member, she continued to prod the side of the petroleum giant in repeated and often unsuccessful class action lawsuits. This eventually turned the tables of technique to a system of advertising where Richard and her allies would often use the methods of media to create bad PR for the company. Things like webcams, press conferences and even publicly inviting Shell officials to take a breath from a bag of Norco air during a seminar all played toward Margie Richard’s image as being what the media proclaimed to be Norco’s “Chief Rabble-Rouser.” 

Eventually after years of toil, Shell executives gave into grassroots determination and dolled out community victories like reducing emissions, paying voluntary resettlement costs and a 5 million dollar neighborhood investment fund. Today, Richard’s activism extends far beyond Norco into global activism and she continues to represent not only members of the Louisiana community, but residents of other petroleum-oppressed societies as well.


For more from author and photographer Sean Dronia, head over to his website at: https://www.seandronia.com/

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