This month, CILTI joins the nation in observing Black History Month, which shines a light on Black achievement while recognizing the ongoing struggle that Black people have faced throughout American history.
While often excluded and underrecognized, Black Americans have made (and continue to make) important environmental contributions.
Here are some historical and present-day figures to celebrate, not just in February but throughout the year. (Find even more here.)
18th Century: The Astronomer, Mathematician, and Naturalist
Benjamin Banneker was a largely self-taught mathematician and astronomer credited with being one of the first African American scientists. He was born into a free Black family in 1731 and grew up on the family farm outside Baltimore, where he first observed the stars. His astute mathematical mind enabled him to document astronomical patterns, including predicting a solar eclipse in 1789.
At only 21 years old, he had already built a clock entirely out of wood. It kept precise time for decades after. He would go on to write farmer’s almanacs, eventually besting well-known astronomers in his successful eclipse prediction. Banneker even challenged Thomas Jefferson’s slave-holding hypocrisy in 1791, sending the then-secretary of state a copy of his almanac with a letter.
Because of his mathematical abilities, Jefferson recommended him for the surveying team that designed Washington, D.C.
As a naturalist, Banneker observed the world around him with the same keen eye as he did the stars. His scientific observations of the 17-year cicada recently gained attention with the 2022 return of Brood X.
19th Century: The Buffalo Soldier
Captain Charles Young had been born to enslaved parents in Kentucky during the Civil War, but he became the first African American to graduate from a white high school in Ripley, Ohio. He was only the third Black man to graduate from the US Military Academy at West Point.
He served in the cavalry, rising to the rank of Captain. His all-Black regiment, known as Buffalo Soldiers, were charged with managing Sequoia and General Grant National Parks in 1903.
His service area encompassed Sequoia National Park and part of what is now Kings Canyon National Park. As acting superintendent, Captain Young oversaw the improvement and extension of a wagon road whose construction helped popularize the parks as tourist destinations.
In a 1903 report on Sequoia and General Grant National Parks, Captain Young recognized the value of forest preservation, writing, “Indeed, a journey through this park … will convince even the least thoughtful man of the needfulness of preserving these mountains just as they are, with their clothing of trees, shrubs, rocks, and vines, and of their importance to the valleys below as reservoirs for storage of water for agricultural and domestic purposes.”
20th Century: The Activist
Hattie Carthan was a key figure during a changing time in New York City. She was born in 1900 in Virginia, but moved to Brooklyn in the mid-1950s. By 1964, seeing the loss of tree canopy in her neighborhood, she had rallied the community to plant more than 1500 trees.
She later secured landmark status for a 40-foot Magnolia grandiflora in danger of being destroyed by apartment developers. Then, at age 72, she founded the Magnolia Tree Earth Center in a nearby brownstone. The organization was created to “foster urban beautification, earth stewardship, and community sustainability.”
Today, it continues to be a hub for environmental concerns, introducing young people to earth stewardship while anchoring the neighborhood in its original building.
21st Century: The Trailblazer
In 1999, Gloria Brown became the first Black woman to achieve the rank of forest supervisor at the US Forest Service. Her climb was arduous. Interviewed for a Forest Service history project about her career, she said, “You have to have courage; you have to really believe in yourself.”
In the interview, she described herself as a hiker who loves the wilderness. While working on the Siuslaw watershed in Oregon, she led a team that created a design for a river that had been straightened, denuded of trees, and diked.
She said, “They did a design where they looked up a hundred years ago how that river was running, how was it actually moving. We … put that river back into its meandering way that it was supposed to be, planted poplars and cottonwoods, and … it was shocking how quick the salmon came back. And it’s like giving birth.”
For this work, her team received an international recognition called the Riverprize Award from Australia.
We honor these Black leaders and many others whose contributions go unsung.
Book: Black Woman in Green