The Black Hiking Movement: A Return To NatureSep 02, 2021 06:00AM ● By Trish Ahjel Roberts
Have you ever been out for a hike or camping weekend and noticed a lack of diversity? If so, it wasn’t your imagination. While African Americans make up 32% of the Georgia population and 13% of the population in the U.S., Black visitors accounted for only 7% of the 307 million visitors to national parks, according to a 2015 study by the National Park Service (NPS). Thankfully, there is a movement underway to change that. But first, let’s take a look at factors that have contributed to the disparity in the first place.
According to the NPS, most U.S. states enforced the segregation of outdoor recreation areas until the 1960s. During The Great Migration (1916-70), more than six million African Americans migrated from the rural South to cities, seeking refuge from Jim Crow laws, race-based terrorism and poor economic opportunities. According to the NAACP, nearly 5,000 lynchings occurred in the U.S. from 1882 to 1968. During that time, the second-highest number of lynchings occurred in Georgia, where more than 500 people were unlawfully tortured and hung without due process. Black people were not the only victims—the rest included immigrants and white civil rights activists—but they made up about 72% of those that were victimized.
Other factors have reduced Black Americans’ participation in outdoor recreation activities. Many relocated to urban areas with limited access to green spaces, many were denied entry to parks and the country’s long history of violence on people of color is ever-present. Black baby boomers might not have been legally allowed to visit national parks as children until desegregation in the 1960s, and even after that, it was often at the risk of being terrorized. New stories of harassment and violence reached center stage in 2020, further highlighting ongoing concerns for Black people seeking to enjoy the outdoors: first with the murder of Georgia jogger, Ahmaud Arbery, and again with the harassment of birdwatcher, Christian Cooper, in New York City’s Central Park.
Leaders in the Movement
Carolyn HartfieldDespite these barriers, there is a movement underfoot to bring nature back into the lives of African Americans. Certified health coach, adventure leader and tai chi instructor Carolyn Hartfield went on her first hike on Blood Mountain in Georgia for her 56th birthday in 2004. As she describes it, “I’m a city girl from Detroit. I was so excited just being outdoors! I had never experienced anything so exhilarating!” The former health food store owner was forever changed.
“Being in nature gives me clarity of mind. It just made me feel so happy and good…I felt a new freedom.” She received training from the Sierra Club and REI Co-op and began spreading her love for the outdoors. Since 2009, she has hosted monthly hikes on the first Saturday of every month, encouraging African Americans to venture out into the woods.
She began with the Hartfield Hikers in 2009 and has had an active presence on Meetup.com as the Atlanta African American Adventurers Group since 2011. The group promotes hiking, zip lining, whitewater rafting, camping, cycling and sailing. Hartfield works with AARP to encourage older Americans to be more active and hosts Walk With a Doc, its weekly virtual walking program.
Hartfield leads by example. While many people were binge-watching Netflix during the pandemic, she walked the entire 61.4-mile Silver Comet Trail over the course of three days to celebrate her 72nd birthday. As her website declares: “I’m not retired. I’m rejuvenated.”
While Carolyn Hartfield was taking Atlantans on hikes, Outdoor Afro began as a blog. In 2010, its founder and CEO, Rue Mapp, was invited to the Obama White House to participate in the America’s Great Outdoors Conference. She later contributed to a think tank for launching Michelle Obama’s “Let’s Move” initiative. Outdoor Afro now leads a team of nearly 90 volunteers who represent 42 cities across the U.S. The Atlanta chapter boasts more than 2,300 members and can be found on Meetup.com as Outdoor Afro Atlanta. The group describes itself as “a community that reconnects African Americans with natural spaces and one another through recreational activities such as camping, hiking, biking, birding, fishing, gardening, skiing and more!”
Outdoor Afro’s Atlanta group leader, Janina Edwards, is also an instructor at Kashi Atlanta Urban Yoga Ashram, where she offers a walking meditation class in addition to traditional yoga. Originally from Chicago, Edwards was born in the early 60s, just as national parks were getting desegregated.
“I was very blessed to have a dad who took my family camping and did things in the outdoors at a time when that was unusual,” says Edwards. “He took us skiing, ice skating, swimming. That was what we did. I didn’t think about it being strange at the time. I was also a Girl Scout.”
Her upbringing speaks to the diversity of the Black experience and the impact of desegregation and equal access. Her biggest tip for new hikers: “Hiking and walking are the same; just make sure you have support for ankles and feet.” She likes walking with a stick for balance and recommends long pants and clothes that wick. “In yoga, we talk about the first chakra, getting grounded. Hiking has really helped. It brings my stress levels down and makes me feel in union with all of my senses.”
Black People Who Hike
Debbie Njai has made big footprints in the hiking community. She is the founder and creative director of Black People Who Hike (BPWH), leading a team of 18 skilled volunteers that includes marketing strategists and hike leaders. The 34-year-old experienced her first hike in August 2019 and launched BPWH the next month. She grew up in a small Illinois town near Missouri “where [her] backyard was the woods” and credits hiking with helping her seasonal depression during gloomy winters and providing a natural high that can last all week.
Njai invites photographers and videographers to document every hike she hosts and is working on a documentary series. “We have an obligation to document,” says Njai. “That’s what really drew more people out—being able to see themselves on our pages.” Most of her hikes are catered with vegan meals from Black-owned restaurants and ticketed by the Black-owned company, Ticket Falcon.
Njai believes the Black Lives Matter movement has awakened the outdoor industry to its lack of diversity. After the Christian Cooper incident in New York City, she co-founded Black Hikers Week and collaborated with 30 other Black outdoor organizations under the hashtag #blackhikersweek.
Njai notes that the lack of information about hiking and its health benefits and safety concerns create barriers for Black hikers. The parks that her group visits are often in rural areas of Missouri that were considered “sundown” towns and unsafe for Black travelers. As recently as 2017, the NAACP issued a travel warning for the entire state of Missouri, confirming these fears. She alleviates member apprehensions by hiking in large groups.
While based in the Midwest, BPWH is working with Black Too Earth, an Atlanta environmental organization, to host their two-day Black Businesses Matter hike in October.
“I believe that bringing Black people out in nature is an opportunity for us to heal,” says Njai. With a mission to “empower, educate and reengage” and 30,000 Instagram followers, her feet are clearly on the right path. ❧