As this year's Black History Month comes to an end, RSPB England Communications Officer, Sydney reflects on why we rarely hear of famous black naturalists and conservationists. Trigger warning: Mentions of slavery and racism

Historically, studying natural history or conservation was an immense privilege which often required the freedom and funding to travel the world, “discovering” new species (although not without a lot of uncredited help from local guides[1]). This was a privilege that was mainly granted to the white, male, upper classes, which unsurprisingly is why the majority of famous, historical naturalists fit into these demographics[2].

Acknowledging the fact that history is unfairly weighted towards these people, does not disregard their achievements. It merely adds context to the conversation about how these people had the privilege to be in history books, where other marginalised people who could (and did!) achieve equally impressive things, will not be remembered.

Black History Month is an important month, but it is not the only time of the year that we should be remembering and recognising black history. That being said, we would like to take this time to reflect on some of the lesser known historical black naturalists and conservationists who paved the way to our current understanding of natural history and conservation.

So, while we look at the rather limited information I could find on black conservationists and naturalists, let’s work on making sure the black conservationists, birders and naturalists of today, get a place in the history books of tomorrow.

John Edmonstone

Illustration of Darwin's finches

Image: Darwin's finches or Galapagos finches. Darwin, 1845

John Edmonstone was born in into slavery on a plantation, in what is now Guyana.  He gained his freedom and moved to Edinburgh where he learnt the skill of taxonomy. He became a teacher at Edinburgh University where he taught none other than Charles Darwin, in preparation for his voyage south on the HMS Beagle.

Darwin used the techniques he had learnt from Edmonstone to preserve the famous finches, which informed his theory of evolution.

Wangari Maathai

Portrait of Wangria Maathai

Image: Wangari Maathai 2004 Nobel Peace prize winner by John Matthew Smith (https://www.flickr.com/people/kingkongphoto/) is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Wangari Maathai was the first African women to win the Nobel Peace Prize, which happened in the not so distant past of 2004.  She founded the Green Belt Movement in 1977, an organisation with a holistic approach to conservation. The Green Belt Movement aimed to simultaneously support Kenyan village women who needed income and resources, and help improve the environment by combating desertification and deforestation.

Wangari has spoken frequently at United Nations General assemblies, not just about environmental conservation but also democracy, human rights and women's issues. She was elected to Kenya's National assembly with a huge majority (98% of the vote!) and was appointed assistant minister of the environment, natural resources and wildlife.

 

Sheila Minor Huff

A black and white photograph of a group of men in suits, and one woman.

Image: A photograph from the 1971 International Conference on the Biology of Whales, which started the search for the "mystery woman"

Sheila Minor Huff came to the attention of the general public when a photograph from 1971 at the internal conference on the biology of whales surfaced on twitter. Illustrator, Candace Jean Anderson, was researching a book about the Marine Mammal Protection Act of 1972, when she came across the photo. Intrigued by the unnamed, mostly obscured figure of Sheila and the fact she was the only woman and only black attendee in the photograph, Candace took to twitter to solve the mystery. The tweet went viral.

It was discovered this mystery figure was Sheila Minor Huff, who rose from the ranks of biological research technician at the time of the photo, to being appointed to the U.S. Department of the Interior as an Environmental Protection Specialist where she worked on a range of wildlife and environmental projects. When she finally retired she had become a GS-14 step 10 federal employee — one of the highest designations possible.

When asked about how she felt about her name not being documented with the photo she simply replied, "no big deal". She followed up by saying  “When I try to do good, when I try and add back to this wonderful earth that we have, when I try to protect it, does it matter that anybody knows my name?”

 

Shelton Johnson

Quote overlaid over an image of a tree. the quote reads "I didn't join the Park Service for money; I get paid in gasps."- Shelton Johnson

Johnson, born in 1958, and of African American and Native American Ancestry, was an advocate for encouraging minorities to visit national parks, particularly African Americans. He has done much to raise awareness about the Buffalo soldiers, the historically segregated African American regiments of the U.S. Army, who, despite blatant racism and brutal weather conditions, earned a reputation for serving courageously and were among the first rangers in what became the National Park Service.

Through his career he continues to spread the word “that the national parks really are America's best idea, and that this beauty belongs to every American, including African-Americans". When asked why in his long career why he has never asked for a promotion/higher pay Johnson replied, "I facilitate astonishment. I didn't join the Park Service for money; I get paid in gasps."

 

George Washington Carver

Portrait of George Washington Carver

Image: Portrait of George Washington Carver 

George Washington Carver was born into enslavement on a farm near Diamond in Missouri in 1864.

After slavery was abolished, and as an adult, George successfully applied to university but was turned away when they discovered he was black. Undeterred he eventually enrolled at Iowa State College, the first African American to do so.

He earned his bachelor's degree in agricultural science in 1894. His professors were so impressed by his work they asked him to stay on to work on a Master of Science which he earned 1896, he went onto teach and become the first black member of faculty. It was George's degree work which informed his idea for crop rotation.

George pioneered a revolutionary form of outreach to educate the farmers on crop rotation and soil chemistry. Using a mobile classroom, he encouraged farmers to use alternative crops, such as peanuts, in rotation with their crops, to replenish nitrogen in the soil. It worked and the farmers were ecstatic about the large crops of cotton that resulted from George's advice - but less so about the ever-mounting surplus of peanuts! George returned to his laboratory and with the help of his assistants quickly derived various new products that could be produced from them and made the recipes widely available securing the future of farming in the South. Crop rotation is still widely used to this day.

 

Interested in finding out more? Recommended further reading:

Environmentalisms racist history

The tribes paying the brutal price of conservation

Birders of Africa: History of a Network,

Bird names for birds

Nature Read in Black and White: decolonial approaches to interpreting natural history collections 

How our colonial past altered the ecobalance of an entire planet

 

 

[1] Are Natural History Museums inherently racist?

[2] Of the 94 entries in Wikipedia’s “british naturalists”, only nine are not white men.

Anonymous