Can you name a Black environmentalist? A Black environmental trailblazer? A Black naturalist? I ask these questions because if I were put on the spot, I wouldn’t be able to do it. One obvious reason was that it just was not taught when I was in grade school, but also because when we did learn about these environmentalists it was about Jane Goodall, Johnny Appleseed, and Rachel Carson. All of these taught me very important lessons about valuing the Earth and the species that live here but it left me without anybody to look up to who looked like me. This week we are taking the time to honor black environmentalist who have been left out of these lessons and some even forgotten as time moves on.
Dr. Robert D. Bullard
Since environmental justice is my favorite environmental lens, it is only fitting that we start off with the Father of Environmental Justice himself – Dr. Robert Bullard. Dr. Bullard is an environmental activist and sociologist born in Elba, Alabama. In 1978, him and his wife Linda McKeever were involved in the first lawsuit that used civil rights laws to charge a corporation with environmental discrimination: Bean v. Southwestern Waste Corporation. Dr. Bullard was one of the people to organize the 1991 National People of Color Environmental Leadership Summit and was a part of President Clinton’s Executive Order 12898 that defined the significant need for environmental justice in our country. In 2020, he was awarded the Champions of the Earth Lifetime Achievement Award by the United Nations Environment Program.
Dr. Wangari Maathai
Dr. Maathai was a Kenyan scholar and environmental activist who founded the Green Belt Movement in in 1977. She was known for educating women across Africa about the benefits of planting trees and how they could help slow the deforestation and environmental degradation that was happening throughout the continent. Dr. Maathai won the 2004 Nobel Peace Prize and was the first African woman to do so.
Margie Richard is an environmental activist from Norco, Louisiana. Norco is named for the New Orleans Refining Company and has suffered 2 major explosions in 1973 and 1988. Richard grew up smelling the odors that came from the plant and saw the aftermath of both explosions and witnessed, firsthand, the health problems of her neighbors from the chemical exposure. She formed Concerned Citizens of Norco and was an instrumental part of the decision by Shell to buy out the neighborhood around the plant so the citizens could relocate. Richard is the first African American to win the Goldman Environmental Prize and helps advise other communities going toe to toe with corporations and environmental issues in their backyards.
As I dove into these amazing Black environmentalists, it brought to me to the memory of my late great-grandfather, Mark McClenton. He grew up a migrant worker traveling from Florida/Georgia all the way up here to Delaware. He knew how to plant and nurture plants and how to care for the land he lived on. My PopPop taught my dad how to catch grass shrimp to fish for spot and used to hunt rabbits. This relationship with the Earth is quite common within the Black community and is at the core of environmentalism. It deserves to be recognized and kept alive as we tell both the stories of those who came before and those walk among us now.
Learn more about notable Black environmentalists below: