Our national park system has been described as a gift that we as Americans give to ourselves. The early history of our national parks, however, is one of gifts denied to African Americans.
President Theodore Roosevelt felt that only white people would truly enjoy the beauty of our national parks. The park system was not welcoming to non-whites. This was especially true in states where Jim Crow segregation extended to the park system, even though they were federal properties.
In the early 20th century, white supremacist beliefs were conjoined with eugenics beliefs, beliefs that actions needed to be taken to preserve the racial superiority of whites. Gifford Pinchot, one of President Roosevelt’s most trusted advisors, was the Chair of the National Conservation Commission. The Commission was tasked with inventorying the nation’s natural resources and recommending how to protect them.
The Commission went far afield in its recommendations and dealt with many issues that we wouldn’t ordinarily associate with the enjoyment of nature. The tenth recommendation called for making eugenics a national policy, including forced sterilization for criminals, people with disabilities, or other undesirables. The work of conservation was ultimately about conserving the white race: “If our nation cares to make any provision for its grandchildren and its grandchildren’s grandchildren, this provision must include conservation in all its branches — but above all, the conservation of the racial stock itself.”
When Woodrow Wilson became President, his racist beliefs led to the segregation of the federal work force. So, when his administration created the National Park Service, it also followed the same segregationist policies of the rest of the federal government. African Americans were denied full and equal access to the national parks, especially in the South, where Jim Crow policies were dominant.
President Franklin Roosevelt reversed many of these policies, but segregation continued to be the practice in the parks in the South. Congress was dominated by Southern Democrats who fought any change to integrate the national parks. This changed officially with the passage of the Civil Rights Act, but the legacy of discrimination lives on in the racial disparities among visitors to our national parks. In 2020 it was reported that while people of color made up 42% of the population, they only accounted for 23% of park visitors over the prior decade.
Just imagine the impact of all these years of denying marginalized populations access to our nation’s natural beauty. Natural beauty is a source of restorative inspiration, yet the racist beliefs of those long in power meant these restorative powers couldn’t be shared by all of us. The experience of awe and wonder in the face of natural beauty can lead to a greater sense of social connectedness and a sense of the interdependence of all things. What if we shifted our approach to magnify this connecting and restorative power of natural beauty by making our public parks truly welcoming for all, especially for those who were so long excluded?
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“The last act of the civil rights movement is this embrace of the Earth.”—Shelton Johnson, National Park Service Ranger
This is part of our “Just Imagine” series of occasional posts, inviting you to join us in imagining positive possibilities for a citizen-centered democracy.