Celebrating Black History in the Outdoors

The story of the outdoors and how individuals of color engage with it is complicated. From racial segregation and undertones at the inception of parks systems to modern inaccessibility and fear of being in these spaces, people of color and particularly Black people, have faced challenges in trying to interact in places that are “meant” for everyone. These issues run incredibly deep and will not be resolved immediately and without action. However, we feel it is important to acknowledge and honor stories of individuals who have made an impact in the outdoors. In sharing their narratives, we hope that we are able to encourage others to connect with nature and become more global citizens. These select stories are a few of many, so please continue doing research and building your own legacies in the outdoors! There is much more to be done and plenty of tales yet to be written about. 

Sophia Danenberg – First African American and first Black woman to reach the summit of Mt. EverestSophia Danenberg Everest

Sophia was born in 1972 in Japan and eventually moved to the suburbs of Chicago when she was six. Despite having an “indoorsy” upbringing, she decided to climb the Presidential Traverse just before starting college. She eventually attended Harvard where she graduated magna cum laude in Environmental Sciences and Public Policy after originally being interested in math. After graduating, she became a Fulbright Fellow in Tokyo where she learned to rock climb. With few role models in the space and a focus on other sports within the United States, she had no idea rock climbing and mountaineering were options. Facing discrimination and assumptions that she was only a beginner, she persevered and continued to climb. Her passion and drive brought her to climb Everest unguided and carrying her own gear, becoming the first African American and first Black woman to summit Everest on May 19, 2006. She has climbed three more of the Seven Summits (highest mountains on each continent): Anconcagua in South America, Denali in North America, and Kilimanjaro in Africa. She serves as a role model for young Black female mountaineers and works with many organizations to promote active lifestyles.

Robert Taylor – First African American to thru-hike both AT and PCT

Growing up in Dayton, Ohio, Robert would travel around his neighborhood. At the age of six he saw an ad about the Appalachian Trail. That ad inspired him to learn as much as he could about the Appalachian Trail (2,200 miles) and the Pacific Crest Trail (2,650 miles). He completed his hikes in the late-90s after different challenges on each trail. The PCT posed more challenges in the natural environment, with cougars and bears being points of concern. On the AT, however, his experience was more about the people; he endured other hikers, residents of towns, and other passersby using racial slurs, assuming he was going to steal gear, and further questioning his place on the trail. Despite these setbacks, he continued his hikes and serves as a model of resilience for others looking to engage in hiking.

Matthew Henson – First Person to reach the North PoleMatthew Henson North Pole

Born in Maryland in 1866, Matthew was born to sharecropper parents who died during his childhood. When he was 12, Matthew decided to work as a cabin boy and began traveling around the world. In 1887 he met Robert Peary, a Navy officer and explorer who would end up being an integral part of Henson’s career as an explorer. Together, they traveled to Greenland where Henson developed a connection with the Inuit community. He became quite adept with the Inuit survival techniques in the Arctic and this knowledge proved integral to Peary’s expeditions. They attempted to reach the North Pole 7 times, with their final attempt beginning in 1908. On April 6, 1909, the team consisting of Henson, Peary, and four Inuit guides reached the North Pole. Among the group, Henson was the first to step foot on the North Pole. While Peary received much of the recognition for the expedition, Henson was invaluable to ensure the party’s safety and eventually received high honors for his work. In 1988, the remains of Henson and his wife were relocated to Arlington National Cemetery near Peary.
 

Rue Mapp – Founder of Outdoor AfroRue Mapp Outdoor Afro

Rue Mapp grew up in Oakland, California, and regularly visited the ranch her father built in Lake County, which sowed her love for the outdoors. Rue founded Outdoor Afro in 2009 as a way to reconnect Black people with the natural world. Originally starting as a blog, Outdoor Afro has grown to a national network with chapters in 30 states. The organization plans both large scale trips such as hiking Kilimanjaro to local hiking and rafting trips; opening space for anyone who wants to engage. Rue was a part of Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative and currently serves on boards of The Wilderness Society and The Outdoor Industry Association


Aaron Mair – First African American Sierra Club PresidentAaron Mair Sierra Club President

Aaron Mair is an epidemiological-spatial analyst and environmental justice advocate. He lives in Schenectady, NY and has been an active member of his community since the 1980s when he worked to shut down an incinerator in Albany that was polluting the air. This experience connected Aaron to the Sierra Club, as he reached out for support of the cause to shut down the incinerator. They were initially not very receptive to getting involved and eventually, Aaron decided to become a part of the Sierra Club in 1999 to institute change. Additionally, his focus was on inclusion and diversifying the organization. He has held multiple positions in the organization, serving as president from 2015 to 2017. He currently works for the New York State Department of health. 

These five individuals have made great impacts in the outdoor and environmental spaces and are mere anecdotal retellings of the stories, struggles, and adventures of Black people connecting with the natural world. While the work of environmental justice and connecting historically underrepresented groups to outdoor spaces is ongoing, there are many doing the work to inspire change and serve as role models for these communities. In an interview, Rue Mapp stated, “I wanted to root messaging in nature to connect people across differences. What I mean by that is recognizing that we all have a connection to nature and we can talk about nature in the way that nature views us. I’ve been pretty consistent in reminding us that the trees don’t know that you’re Black, the flowers are going to bloom no matter how much money is in your account. The birds are going to sing no matter your gender or political affiliation. In that way, we can have a very different conversation about what that connection to nature can teach us about being with one another.” 

The natural world must be made more accessible to all in an effort to develop connection with nature and with each other. 

 

In the spirit of healing, we acknowledge and honor the Ute and Cheyenne tribes and all of the original indigenous peoples of the land on which Colorado Outdoor Education Center stands. 

Whose land are you on?

Resources & Works Referenced: 

Altabet, Aaron. “African American Leaders in the Outdoors That Inspire Us.” Hipcamp Journal – Stories for Hipcampers and Our Hosts, 2 Jan. 2019, https://www.hipcamp.com/journal/camping/african-american-leaders-in-the-outdoors-that-inspire-us.

Farrell, Tony. “Robert Taylor: A True Trailblazer.” Backpacker, 1 Sept. 2000, https://www.backpacker.com/trips/robert-taylor-a-true-trailblazer/.

“First African American to thru-Hike Both the AT & Pacific Crest Trails.” Appalachian Trail History, https://appalachiantrailhistory.org/exhibits/show/african-americans-on-the-appal/robert-taylor.

Kelly, Mills. “The A.T. and Race.” Appalachian Trail Conservancy |, 18 Feb. 2021, https://appalachiantrail.org/official-blog/the-a-t-and-race/.

“Matthew Henson.” Arlington National Cemetery, https://www.arlingtoncemetery.mil/Explore/Notable-Graves/Explorers/Matthew-Henson.

“Matthew Henson.” Biography.com, A&E Networks Television, 22 June 2021, https://www.biography.com/explorer/matthew-henson.

Mitra, Maureen Nandini. “Aaron Mair.” Earth Island Journal, 2016, https://www.earthisland.org/journal/index.php/magazine/entry/aaron_mair/.

Nestler, Stefan. “Sophia Danenberg: First Black Woman to Climb Everest Sees Increased Equality: DW: 17.07.2020.” DW.COM, DW, 17 July 2020, https://www.dw.com/en/mount-everest-mountaineering-climbing/a-54214820.

Valtin, Tom. “Black Changemakers in the Outdoors.” Sierra Club, 26 Feb. 2021, https://www.sierraclub.org/articles/2021/02/black-changemakers-outdoors.

Wachter, Paul. “Outdoor Afro Founder Rue Mapp: ‘the Trees Don’t Know That You’re Black’.” Andscape, Andscape, 2 Sept. 2020, https://andscape.com/features/outdoor-afro-founder-rue-mapp-the-trees-dont-know-that-youre-black/. 

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