John Francis witnessed a massive oil spill into the San Francisco Bay in January 1971. Seeing more than 800,000 gallons of oil devastate the natural habitat turned him into a lifelong naturalist and environmentalist. Francis, in his mid-20s at the time, stopped riding in vehicles and walked to every destination for over two decades, which earned him the nickname “Planetwalker.”
Francis would go on to earn three college degrees and work in various posts including for the U.S. Coast Guard, where he studies the impact of oil spills.
He now lives in West Cape May, New Jersey, the borough next to the city of Cape May, where another avid naturalist once lived: Harriet Tubman. Lauded as an emancipation icon, her connection with nature is not heralded nearly as much as her passion for freedom.
And, like Tubman, Francis is African American, a distinction he believes shouldn’t be relevant when it comes to having a connection with the earth. Yet it’s worth noting that contemporary Western society often depicts Black people as urbanites with little interest in the natural world.
Birdwatcher Christian Cooper was verbally accosted by Amy Cooper (no relation), a white woman walking her dog in New York’s Central Park in May 2020. The incident prompted other African American bird watchers to hatch the social media campaign #BlackBirdersWeek.
People of color have even been segregated from organized naturalist causes, as was the case with their longtime exclusion from the Sierra Club, created in 1982. The Sierra Club bills itself as “the nation’s largest and most effective grassroots environmental movement.” In 2020 it issued an apology for the racist views of its founding father, John Muir.
History shows that African Americans have long been among naturalists, even before Tubman. Take York, an enslaved man from Virginia who belonged to explorer William Clark of Lewis and Clark fame. York helped the team identify species and insects they encountered during their expedition. And then there are the former slaves who settled in Walden Woods in Concord, Massachusetts. They influenced the writings of naturalist and philosopher Henry David Thoreau, who famously settled there years later.
More should be known about these pioneers in the natural world, said Charles Chavis, a historian at Virginia’s George Mason University and an organizer of a new online exhibit about enslaved naturalists.
“We are familiar with Walden through Thoreau and York briefly due to Lewis and Clark, and there’s Tubman, of course, but not in this way,” Chavis said. “They’re dismissed and reduced to their role as enslaved individuals.
“Corina Newsome, a North Philadelphia native, is a wildlife biologist and ornithologist (an expert on birds) based in Georgia who helped organize #BlackBirdersWeek. Newsome has spent the last two years becoming more enlightened about her forebears.
“Over the past year and a half, two years that I have learned about these people, I was like ‘Oh my god, I didn’t know these people existed’,” Newsome said. “Now, what it does for me, it will shape my future and as I learn, it shapes my present.”
Newsome plans to make sure young people understand anyone who is Black and interested in nature are not an “anomaly or atypical,” she said.
It could also be lifesaving.
Harriet Tubman – Naturalist
The poet Robert Hayden in his 1962 poem “Runagate, Runagate” alluded to how Tubman used nature when leading enslaved Black people from her native Maryland through Delaware to freedom in locations like upstate New York, Philadelphia and Cape May, the southern tip of New Jersey.
Tubman, born 200 years ago in March — is credited as one of the major conductors on the Underground Railroad, the network of secret routes and safe houses that slaves seeking freedom used to escape. That meant moving people primarily by foot — and mainly at night — through terrain that could pose a challenge to navigation.
That’s where’s Tubman’s skill as a naturalist proved pivotal. She imitated the calls of the Barred Owl to signal if it was safe to travel, what trails to take, what vegetation was safe to eat. She also was an amateur astronomer who looked to the stars to help guide her way.
Cynthia Mullock, the executive director at Cape May’s Harriet Tubman Museum, said while she knew about the abolitionist’s preservation skills, she didn’t get a greater understanding of Tubman as a naturalist — like the owl calls — until reading a 2020 Audubon Society article and other writings.
“It’s truly remarkable the level of skills and abilities she would have had to develop — her ability to read the land and survive independently, her ability to use the stars to navigate and guide, and her facility with the waterways having worked in a maritime environment,” Mullock said. “I think we can learn a lot from her history about being independent and living side by side with nature.”
York and Black Walden
Many of them would not have happened without the assistance of a nearly forgotten member of their expedition — York.
York was enslaved to William Clark’s family in Virginia and grew up with Clark, becoming his “body servant.” He left behind a wife when he was taken on the expedition and would not gain his freedom for years after it ended.
Yet, he was anything but subservient on this journey, as detailed in “The Enslaved Naturalist.”
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In the online exhibit, which debuted in December, is a passage from the journal kept by Lewis where he noted York’s discovery of the ruffed grouse bird: “a bird of a scarlet colour as large as a common pheasant with a long tail has returned, one of them was seen today near the fort by Capt. Clark’s black man, I could not obtain a view of it myself.”
Clark also named some islands on the Missouri River — “Yorks 8 Islands” and a tributary of the Yellowstone River, “Yorks Dry Creek.”
“In spite of all of the contributions — and everything like that he made to the discoveries — saving [Lewis and Clark] on several occasions as well as helping them to navigate and being able to negotiate with Native Americans, he’s overlooked and thrown asunder, and his humanity is denied,” said Chavis, who created the exhibit along with fellow George Washington University educator Travis Gallo.
Another group of Black naturalists featured in the exhibit are the formerly enslaved African Americans who raised their families in the Walden Woods, a barren, remote area outside of Concord, Massachusetts from 1780 to the 1850s.
The existence of residents like Brister Freeman, his sister Zilpah White, Thomas Dugan and wife Jennie, and Susan Garrison and husband Jack, who settled and lived off the land, would be unknown if it weren’t for Thoreau, who celebrated them in his writings.
Thoreau achieved fame for his 1854 book, “Walden; or, Life in the Woods,” which recounted the two years the naturalist and resolute abolitionist spent living in a cabin built near Walden Pond.
Thoreau would memorialize one of the residents of Black Walden with this passage: “Down the road, on the right hand, on Brister’s Hill, lived Brister Freeman, “a handy Negro,” slave of Squire Cummings once, there where grow still the apple trees which Brister planted and tended; large old trees now, but their fruit still wild and ciderish to my taste.”
These residents had a profound influence on Thoreau, Chavis said.
“What Thoreau was doing was discussing and examining the ways in which they lived there prior to him arriving. … He’s using that and developing the foundation for his theories and perspectives,” Chavis observed.
Black naturalists now
John Francis, the West Cape May resident, said while he is proud of being a naturalist and of his environmental work — he has helped write oil spill regulations — he does not necessarily see himself as part of a long line of Black naturalists.
“I would like to be just a naturalist or would like to be just an environmentalist, or I would like to be just a human being,” Francis said.
“I feel really fortunate that I had been able to walk across America and experience something that few people get to experience — the humanity of America. That transcends political party and color.”
That Tubman and other African Americans were preeminent naturalists is not surprising to Francis.
“Anybody who was going to walk a long ways back in the day, I just imagine them as a naturalist,” he said. “It’s like farmers back then, a lot of the freed slaves who started farms and grew chops. I consider them some of the first environmentalists.”
Corina Newsome, the wildlife biologist, always had a love of animals growing up. But it was not until she was in her teens interning at the Philadelphia Zoo when she saw another Black person who worked with animals and was a naturalist.
Newsome, who identifies herself as “The Hood Naturalist,” would go on to get her degree in zoo and wildlife biology at Malone University in Ohio before getting her master’s in biology from Georgia Southern University in 2021.
She now works for Georgia Audubon as community engagement manager. Her career path had been a lonely and challenging one, particularly as an African American woman in the fields of wildlife biology and ornithology, she said.
“My identity as an African American woman is essential to the work that I do. The spaces that I have been in professionally or at school, I have always been the only Black person and often the only person of color,” Newsome said. “At first, it was pretty isolating.”
Newsome said she also felt isolated because her understanding of African Americans and the natural world was “through the lens of trauma and danger.”
“My mom and my family, even I was in graduate school and I was out in rural Georgia doing research, they were terrified for me or doing everything they could to convince me to stop,” Newsome recalled. “There was never any real positive association between Black people and nature for me that I ever learn about.”
She has felt less isolated in recent years after learning about other Black naturalists in various ways, including social media. Newsome herself has attained a following of over 66,000 on Instagram and 84,000 on Twitter while sharing about her work.
They include peers who have become her mentors like Rae Wynn-Grant, a carnivore ecologist and fellow with National Geographic Society, known for her research of the human impact on the behavior of black bears. Wynn-Grant has an Instagram following of 34,000. There’s also Rasheena Fountain, an instructor at the University of Washington and a writer whose work deals with Black environmental memory and environmental justice, and J. Drew Lanham, a professor of wildlife biology and poet at Clemson University.
“Suddenly, it didn’t feel like I was this renegade, like I was wilding out,” Newsome said. “Being able to place myself in the context of a long line of Black people going as far back and further back than Harriet Tubman is so affirming.
“It has placed my work in a more firm foundation. I felt before like I was doing something abnormal, but it was not abnormal. It’s just our history is not celebrated or shared in any mainstream educational context.”
The Enslaved Naturalist exhibit can be found at: https://tinyurl.com/enslavednaturalists
Ricardo Kaulessar is a culture reporter for the USA TODAY Network’s Atlantic Region How We Live team. For unlimited access to the most important news, please subscribe or activate your digital account today.