A History of Black Environmentalism
Land is the basis of all independence.
Land is the basis of freedom, justice and equality.
- Malcolm X1
The history of black
environmentalism is largely a history of black agricultural innovation.
The hardship experienced by blacks both in Africa and in the
United States helped t create a "survival instinct"
approach to conservation concerns rather than one on issue activism.
Nonetheless, the innovations that blacks have brought to environmental
stewardship are indispensable to the progress of humanity as
In Africa, the scarcity of
water has always been a factor in the evolution of continental
farming techniques. Among tribesmen in some parts of Africa,
water was a collective possession that was allocated according
to the types of crops being grown at the time. Simple dams, called
rabta or sedd, were made of branches and stones.
The use of dammed water would be available only to those who
helped construct it.2
Crops were rotated across different areas to preserve the fertility
of the soil.3
Traditional African crops included
cereals, vegetables and various medicinal plants. Africans also
domesticated coffee, sorghum, millet and watermelon.4
In the post-Civil War United
States, the 1866 Southern Homestead Act opened public lands in
Alabama, Arkansas, Florida, Mississippi and Louisiana to people
regardless of their race. In 1874, the Freedmen's Bureau distributed
more than 500,000 additional acres of farmland in Georgia and
Florida to freed slaves.5
By 1910, 218,972 farms in the United States were owned by African-Americans
and by 1914 approximately 55 black banks existed to help with
financing.6 With northward migrations of African-Americans
during World Wars I and II, the financial turmoil of the Great
Depression, consolidation and underhanded financial practices
that robbed many black farmers of their land, the number of black-owned
farms plunged to only 2,498 in 1992.7
Outside of the agricultural
realm, African-Americans have been involved in other environmental
activism. However, no major environmental organization has ever
been headed by an African-American.
1 Timeline, web site of the
Public Broadcasting Service series "Homecoming... Sometimes
I am Haunted by Memories of Red Dirt and Clay," downloaded
from http://www.pbs.org/homecoming/timeline.html on January 4,
2 "African Farming Techniques," downloaded from http://www.historylink101.com/history_of_farm.htm
on January 4, 2002.