By Kyaira Ware, Community Conservation Manager at Potomac Conservancy
During Black History Month, we honor the vast and diverse spectrum of black experiences, perspectives, and cultures that exist throughout the world.
Environmentalists pay homage to greats such as Harriet Tubman, political activist and expert navigator of the forest, and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., civil rights leader and
While Tubman and King have been justly revered as some of the greatest activists of our time, there are countless other lesser-known black leaders whose significant contributions to the environmental movement have been largely forgotten.
This Black History Month, take some time to learn about black individuals who’ve influenced and advanced the movement. Scroll down to read more.
Ota Benga’s legacy serves as a painful, yet necessary, reminder of the long history of racism and injustice within the conservation movement.
Benga was only 21 years old when his wife, two children, and other tribe members were killed during a raid by a police force under King Leopold II of Belgium in 1904. Benga was eventually captured, sold into slavery, and later purchased by Samuel Phillips Verner, a missionary and explorer from South Carolina, for a “pound of salt and a bolt of cloth.”
After traveling the Congo and appearing as the premier exhibit at the Saint Louis World’s Fair, Verner temporarily housed Benga in the Bronx Zoo as the newest addition to the zoo’s primate house. Each afternoon, spectators awaited to watch Benga share a cage with an orangutan, chimpanzees, and a parrot. The exhibition became the zoo’s most popular and controversial attraction. In September 1906, nearly after its opening, the exhibit was closed due to extreme backlash from the public.
Following the exhibition’s closing, Benga was invited to Lynchburg, Virginia to attend seminary school. After failing to assimilate into his new life and “becoming increasingly hopeless about his future,” Benga committed suicide on March 20, 1916.
While Benga suffered immensely throughout his entire life, learning about Benga’s story affords us the opportunity to remember our past, so we may do better for our future.
Matthew Henson’s legacy serves as a source of empowerment for people of color who do not always see themselves represented in the environmental movement.
Born on August 8, 1866, Henson became an orphan at a young age. He spent his early childhood working as a cabin boy on a ship, traveling the world to trading hotspots such as Africa, China, and Russia. Through the instruction of the ship’s captain, he also learned to read and write.
Upon moving to Washington, D.C., Henson became a store clerk before meeting Robert Peary, an American Navy officer and explorer. Peary initially hired Henson as a valet. However, Henson’s experience and navigation expertise soon proved to be far too valuable. He eventually became Peary’s most trusted accomplice on epic voyages across the world. Among many expeditions, the dynamic duo traveled to Greenland. It was also reported, although never confirmed, that they were the first people to reach the North Pole in 1909.
Perry largely overshadowed Henson’s accomplishments. But in 2000, the National Geographic Society posthumously awarded Henson the Hubbard Medal. His experience as an expert explorer continues to inspire people of color to become environmentalists.
The “buffalo soldiers” remind us of the early role that African American men played in protecting America’s greatest treasures.
After the Civil War in 1866, Congress passed the Army Organization Act, which created six African-American army regiments. From there, the “buffalo soldiers” were born. While these soldiers are mainly known for their time spent scouting and patrolling the vast terrain of western states and territories, many people don’t understand the extent of their contributions to national parks. As some of the earliest park rangers, they handled everything “from evicting poachers and timber thieves to extinguishing forest fires” throughout great national parks such as Yosemite.
While their accomplishments as top-performing Calvary regiments and expert forest men were not always appreciated during their lifetimes, today we appreciate their service, sacrifice and position in the history of environmentalism.
Kyaira Ware is the current Community Conservation Manager at Potomac Conservancy. She is passionate about connecting urban communities to environmental sustainability and looks forward to the day when we can all agree that climate change is real.