It’s Time to Reckon: A National Park History Lesson
Black History Month serves as a great reminder for us to learn about the harsh past of this country and celebrate Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). However, it’s also important to remember to continue this work year-round. To kickstart an ongoing conversation within our outdoor community, I delved into the history of the National Park Service (NPS).
National Parks are a wonderful way to escape for so many folks. I know that I always enjoy taking a trip out to Big Bend to unwind, destress, and get out in nature. However, something that had never occurred to me was that the National Parks used to be segregated.
First and foremost, I acknowledge my privilege in being able to say that “it had never occurred to me” regarding segregation of many of the National Parks.
Not all National Parks were segregated. This only occurred in states where segregation was enforced in the mid-1930s; however, that’s still a large number of parks! Familiar places like Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Hot Springs National Park, and Shenandoah National Park all had separate campsites, picnic tables, and even separate trails. Sometimes the trails for BIPOC were subpar and limited so they couldn't even visit the most notable attractions of the park. Imagine spending the money to take your family on a trip to a National Park only to be severely limited in the activities and places you can visit. It is infuriating to think about, but that was the reality of BIPOC during the 1930s to the end of segregation around the 1960s.Because BIPOC were severely limited at most of the southern National Parks, this further skewed the public’s perception of their enjoyment and knowledge of the outdoors for years—and even decades—to come. This perception is still pervasive in our society today, long after the National Parks in the South were integrated. Thinking about representation and accessibility in outdoor recreational spaces now, this still affects people of color, specifically Black and Indigenous folks. When these spaces do not show significant diversity, it is difficult for those who do not fit into the traditional box of “outdoorsy” (aka: white and wealthy) to see a space for themselves.
While the government and the larger white population of America did not see BIPOC as “enjoying” available outdoor spaces, BIPOC were a large part of the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), an effort to build more NPS trails and facilities. CCC taught many Black and Indigenous men about forestry and conservation. With all this knowledge, you would think more BIPOC would have gotten long-term job opportunities with NPS. However, those positions instead went to the white folks who worked in the CCC. This only widened the generational gap of those who had access to these natural areas.
The repercussions of NPS decisions to segregate National Parks are still present today. While NPS is making an effort to acknowledge its all-too-recent restrictions on BIPOC in National Parks, there is still little known about it—and when people don’t know the history, it becomes harder to comprehend the inequities of today and make amends. Acknowledgement is the first step for this country to heal.
That being said, there are so many organizations nationwide helping to spread diversity in the wonderful world of outdoor recreation. At Gossamer Gear, we’re excited to be partnering with Explore Austin and Black Outside Inc., who are doing just that. And we’re committed to working with more groups and listening to BIPOC voices on what they need from us and our community. This is only just the beginning of the work that we all need to do.
It’s up to all of us to learn more about the systematic oppression of BIPOC in the United States and to take action. If you’ve never had to worry about your safety or whether you belong in a National Park, recognize that privilege, and then make an effort to create a more welcoming space for others. There is most definitely space for everybody out here.
Sarah del Puerto (she/her) is the customer experience and product specialist for Gossamer Gear. She loves rock climbing, yoga, hiking, and really any activity outside in her free time. Feel free to shoot an email over to firstname.lastname@example.org with any questions or just to chat!