Guest Post | Our Wild and Civil Rights

Rue Mapp is the founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro, an award-winning national network that supports connections between African Americans and the natural world. This blog was originally posted on Outdoor Afro’s website. Save The Bay, Outdoor Afro, and Golden Gate Audubon will be hosting volunteer events at the MLK Jr. Shoreline in Oakland to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day on Monday January 19, 2015. 

Frank and Audrey Peterman
Frank Peterman, conservationist and civil rights activist, with his wife Audrey.

Frank Peterman, a conservationist and civil rights activist, was in his twenties during the 1960s. He recalls a great and daily sense of urgency about civil rights issues versus that of environmental concerns. For him, the March on Washington, alongside the likes of Martin Luther King, Jr. and John Lewis, was a galvanizing event that called for equitable access to jobs and quality of life for blacks in America and an end to institutionally protected physical brutality. “As a part of the NAACP to advance the Civil Rights Act, we did not discuss the Wilderness Act,” Peterman says, “and we were not invited to participate in their caucus.” He goes on to share that even though the momentum of each act was politically symbiotic, those driving the wilderness protection agenda may not have included African Americans deliberately as a key impetus of the Wilderness Act was about protecting the wild from the spoilage of human impact versus creating equitable access to it. From his perspective, “the Wilderness Act was about the protecting the wild, not people.”

While it does not appear that the Wilderness Act and Civil Rights Act shared a public platform back then, some believe an opportunity was missed to bring the acts more pointedly together that might have altered the course and progression of these respective movements today. Dr. Carolyn Finney, Assistant Professor at the University of California was a young child during the civil rights era, and while she personally remembers few specific events of the era, like most African American children of her generation, she grew up with the movement’s tales and heroes evergreen on the family tongue. “Civil rights? Yes, I always knew what that was about!”

In her book, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors, she plots out the interwoven chronology of social and political events that lead up to the civil rights and wilderness act. Even though linked by a common timeline, Dr. Finney believes that the wilderness preservation movement—and the environmental movement, more broadly—missed a golden opportunity to address race that might have helped put conservation on a path toward greater harmony between people and nature, and especially between African Americans and the natural wild. “The conservation movement has traditionally prided itself on a concept of nature as pure,” she says, “which for some, can also be translated to mean whiteness.” She contends that had the Wilderness Act considered the human experience in nature, the traditional conservation movement might not struggle with understanding the connection between its work and that of civil rights—making it better equipped to engage with issues related to diversity and inclusion.

In the collaborative efforts around the country to re-invent African American connections to the environment—my organization, Outdoor Afro, is one of them—it is often essential to address fears that linger about the wild. These fears are not only about potential contact with wildlife: there are still perceptions among black folks that one might be susceptible to violence in the cover of the wild. Because of this pervasive thinking, some of the sturdiest urban brothers and sisters are less likely to warm to the idea of wandering alone in the woods to this day. Within the memory of a living generation, many recall the world in which the plaintive refrain of Billie Holiday’s Strange Fruit rang true:

Southern trees bear a strange fruit,

Blood on the leaves and blood at the root,

Black bodies swinging in the southern breeze,

Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees.

While Jim Crow-style terror in nature is no longer a common occurrence, the legacy of institutionalized exclusion of black people from recreational areas persists. The result of years of discrimination is that, for many people, the experience of being outdoors can feel more like an effort to conquer a fear than enjoyment for its own sake. And, still too often, many black and brown folks face unwelcoming (or over-welcoming) stares, questions, and attitudes while recreating in wild spaces that spell discomfort in places that should be a safe respite from the pace of urban life. This is why we find that so many African Americans from urban areas choose backyard wilderness close to home, surrounded by a reflection of familiar faces and defensible cityscapes versus venturing alone into a remote wilderness area far from home.

Shelton Johnson has been a park ranger with the National Park Service in Yellowstone National Park for nearly two decades. His work has flourished on the topic of making the parks more relevant and welcoming for everyone, especially for African Americans. Illustrating both real and composite narratives of the Buffalo Soldier in his guest interpretation talks and in his book Gloryland, Johnson maintains that access to parks in our wild places is ultimately about freedom and provides a platform today to continue the work of civil rights. “The Buffalo Soldiers were sons of slaves, who were compelled to join the military to earn respect and find purpose within the close memory of slavery,” he says. While these soldiers were charged with stewarding land distant from their African roots, Johnson suggests that it proved to be a gateway for belonging and a sense of “owning” in America.

This is the same possibility available to African Americans today in our National Parks. “We are not truly home here in America, unless we engage with the earth to re-connect with the Africans we once were – the hunters, gatherers, horticulturalists – earth bound people,” says Johnson. “So visiting the biome of Yellowstone might also mean a chance to reclaim what it means to be Yoruba, Mandingo – or African American. Whatever you call yourself, it matters little, because it is all the same people, the same earth.”

While the sixties may have been tumultuous, what emerged was a country that dreamed big, had every reason to hope, and found agreement to protect and envision a future for people and resources seen as most vulnerable. In today’s divisive political climate these same actions seem unfathomable, yet remind us of what is possible when we pull together.

We know the work is far from done, but we can pause to celebrate wild lands and the movement to protect them while also respecting the still-sharp memories and historic tensions between people in the wild. With a vision of healing, Outdoor Afro and many other organizations are helping people re-invent connections to natural places both near and far through a variety of peer led activities. One experience at a time, we can replace old fears and reservations about the wilderness with joy, curiosity, and wonder for all ages in our lands.

While the Wilderness Act and the Civil Rights Act may not have been originally conceived out of a common network, we have a chance now to make their real connections come alive today, recognizing the delicate and essential links between people and the wild all around for the betterment of everyone.

Where shall we go together in nature from here?

— Rue Mapp, Founder and CEO of Outdoor Afro

Bay or River?

This story was written in our co-founder Sylvia McLaughlin’s words, from a series of interviews with her. The accompanying image is an ad that you can see now in BART stations and on trains. We share this story now to show that ordinary citizens have the power to make a difference.

Kay, Esther, and I sat in Kay’s living room in the Berkeley Hills, nervous, yet hopeful. We heard a car pulling into the driveway and I said to my friends, “Here we go.” Surely these men who cared so much about redwoods and birds would also want to save our Bay.Bart Ad 1_FINAL

Esther served coffee as we took our seats. On one side of the shiny coffee table sat the three of us “tea ladies” in our colorful suits. On the other side, facing the big window with views of the Golden Gate Bridge towering above the glistening blue water, sat three men in dark suits – the executive directors of Save The Redwoods League, the Audubon Society, and the Sierra Club.

Kay, Esther and I described the problem: The Bay was steadily becoming smaller. Its primary use, other than shipping, was as a place to dump sewage and garbage. When Kay described the awful stench wafting from the shoreline and how at night she could see the Bay on fire where garbage had been dumped in the shallows and set ablaze, they nodded knowingly. I was sure that we had won their support, so I confidently asked, “What can you do to save the Bay?”

The Sierra Club director responded first: “I’m sympathetic to your cause. But we are pouring all of our resources into opposing the Grand Canyon dams. We can’t launch anything new.”

The other leaders responded similarly. The Redwoods League was busy saving the forests. Audubon was occupied with preserving bird habitats. The Sierra Club exec concluded: “It looks like there will have to be a new organization. We’ll give you our mailing lists and help you all we can.”

Then they filed out and wished us luck. We were deflated.

It was 1960 in Berkeley, California. While the free speech movement was gearing up at the University of Berkeley just down the hill, there was also a “progressive” movement to fill in the Bay. Starting with the Gold Rush, San Francisco Bay had been developed at a rapid rate. By 1960, 90 percent of the Bay’s wetlands were gone and the Bay was a third smaller than it had been. From our house I could see a continuous stream of trucks dumping garbage and fill into the water. One day I opened up the newspaper and saw something that sent shivers down my spine. It was an image entitled “Bay or River?” showing that the Bay would become a narrow channel by 2020 if all the various development plans being proposed came to fruition.

At that time, nature conservation in an urban setting was an alien concept. The first Earth Day was still 10 years away. The EPA didn’t exist. While chatting over almond cookies and tea, Kay, Esther, and I came to the conclusion that the Bay needed saving. That’s how we came to be meeting with those men from the largest conservation organizations. But once we heard the car pull away I said, “Well, that didn’t turn out as planned. But it is clear that if anything is going to be done, we are ‘it.’ Let’s get to work.”

Shortly thereafter we sent a letter to everyone we knew inviting them to join Save San Francisco Bay Association for one dollar. We didn’t know if anyone would respond, but a few days later we got our first batch of one dollar checks and even more came the following day. We ended up with a wonderful response – more than 90 percent!

Our first move was to lobby for a new state agency that could regulate development. Senator Eugene McAteer was business friendly, but he also had a restaurant on the Bay. Kay convinced him that it would be good for business to protect this natural resource. In 1965 Senator McAteer and Assemblyman Nicholas Petris co-sponsored a successful bill – the McAteer-Petris Act – which established The Bay Conservation and Development Commission (BCDC). BCDC had two major responsibilities: to prepare a master plan for the Bay and grant or deny permits for Bay filling. We had to keep fighting to assure that BCDC became a permanent agency. We rallied our fellow citizens who wrote letters and telegrams, made calls and even descended on the capital in busloads. After eight years of hard work, the bill passed by just one vote. Governor Reagan signed it and created the agency that is still the main regulatory agency over the Bay today comprised of citizens and public representatives from around the Bay.

Today, I’m proud that Save The Bay remains the largest regional organization working to protect and restore this great natural treasure.

Recently, one of my grandson’s friends asked me a question I’m asked often: “Sylvia, isn’t the Bay saved already?”

I quoted my friend Kay: “The Bay is always in the process of being saved. That is why we have been working so hard for all these years and why it’s important that you and your friends continue to protect it far into the future. Let’s keep it going!”


Once Upon a Time in Oakland…

oak tree
Fun Fact: Oakland was even home to a minor league baseball team, the Oakland Oaks, from 1903-1955!

Once upon a time, Oakland was covered in oak woodlands. Prior to urban development starting in the 1860s, 19 different species of oak covered one-eighth of California’s land and Oakland was home to a uniquely dense oak forest bordering the Bay. These majestic trees provided food and shelter to humans and animals alike. Acorns were used by the Ohlone people to make acorn mush and bread as well as birds, rodents, and deer. Although oak trees can live for hundreds of years, many of the original trees that covered Oakland’s hills are no longer alive today.

Instead, the descendants of Oakland’s original oak trees are incorporated into the city’s urban landscape. True oaks of the genus Quercus exist among high rises, busy streets, and a variety of oak tree themed logos. Although Oakland’s oak trees have been greatly reduced in number, they remain a symbol of the city’s beauty and larger stands of these trees can be found in regional parks and around Lake Merritt.

Because oaks are not salt tolerant, Save The Bay does not plant oak trees at any of our sites. However, we do have a few in our Oakland nursery if you would like to say hi! Sign up to volunteer with us in Oakland.

A Recipe for Saving The Bay

If you’re a Save The Bay supporter, you may have viewed and enjoyed the award-winning, Robert Redford narrated PBS documentary, Saving The Bay, but many people haven’t. And it’s riveting. When the series premiered in on KQED/San Francisco in 2009, it garnered the single highest rating of any PBS program in the nation the evening of its initial broadcast.

bay or river
Fifty years ago, this image sparked a modern environmental movement

KQED Plus is rebroadcasting the series starting Sunday June 2nd. Why not hold a house party and invite a few friends over to watch?

The final episode, Bay in the Balance (1906 – Present) is in large part about Save The Bay’s three founders, Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Esther Gulick, who set out to stop the City of Berkeley’s plan to double in size by filling in the shallow Bay off-shore, and rallied fellow Bay Area citizens to stop San Francisco Bay from becoming little more than a narrow, polluted river.

The three women initially met in their living rooms over tea and almond cookies. They started small, with people they knew, and soon had thousands of active members. This initial cookie-fueled act was the start of a modern grassroots environmental movement in the Bay Area, and it sparked a couple of revolutionary changes: it forced the State of California to acknowledge that the Bay belonged to the public and it proved to ordinary  citizens that they have the power to make a difference.


Bay in the Balance Episode airs on KQED Plus:

•    Sun, Jun 2, 2013 — 5:41pm
•    Wed, Jun 5, 2013 — 10:41pm
•    Thu, Jun 6, 2013 — 4:41am

Plan to watch or set your DVR. Then bake these delicious (and simple) almond cookies courtesy of local food blogger, Amy Sherman of Cooking with Amy and put on the kettle for tea. You never know. It could be the start of something big.

Easy Almond Cookies
Makes 14 cookies

Courtesy of Cooking with Amy
adapted from a recipe published in Gourmet magazine, 1997


1 cup blanched almonds, whole or slivered
1/3 cup sugar
Pinch salt
1 egg white
1/4 teaspoon almond extract
14 whole almonds


Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a food processor combine the almonds, sugar and salt. Process until very finely ground. Add the egg white and almond extract and pulse until the dough comes together. Roll the dough into 14 evenly sized balls, and place on a parchment lined cookie sheet. Press one almond into the center of each cookie, pressing down slightly.

Bake for 10 minutes or until just starting to show a hint of gold. Let cookies cool on the pan, then transfer to an airtight container.


Saving the Bay Airs on KQED

How well do you know the history of San Francisco Bay? Whether you are a long-time Bay lover or a newcomer, you will surely learn something from Saving the Bay. Ron Blatman’s powerful 4-part documentary airs on KQED starting this Thursday February 21st. Episode 4 tells the story of three women — Kay Kerr, Sylvia McLaughlin, and Esther Gulick — who mobilized thousands of residents to found Save The Bay and launched California’s first modern grassroots environmental movement. Watch a clip below:



Be sure to tune in — or DVR — the incredible story of San Francisco Bay on KQED.

Episode 4 broadcast schedule:

KQED Life: Thu, Feb 21, 2013 — 11:00pm
KQED 9: Thu, Feb 21, 2013 — 11:00pm
KQED Life: Fri, Feb 22, 2013 — 5:00am
KQED 9: Fri, Feb 22, 2013 — 5:00am
KQED Life: Sun, Mar 3, 2013 — 5:42pm
KQED 9: Sun, Mar 3, 2013 — 5:42pm
KQED Plus: Sat, Mar 9, 2013 — 10:43pm
KQED Plus: Sun, Mar 10, 2013 — 4:43am