Black community shows growing interest in going green

Nov 5, 2009

WASHINGTON – When President Obama last week approved funding to enlarge a national park in South Carolina, it was just another indication of a growing movement: the African American community is getting its hands green.

The effort to expand the Congaree National Park in South Carolina was made possible largely because of support from African American office holders and community interest groups. But the Palmetto state is not the only place where there is evidence of increased involvement by the African-American community on a range of conservation issues. It’s happening across the country – from the Congaree to Capitol Hill and beyond.

“In the past, what has been missing is the importance of conservation in the black community,” said Frank Peterman, director of public and political awareness of the eastern forest program for The Wilderness Society who has worked for several years to obtain funding for the expansion of Congaree National Park. “Often times when a decision is made to protect land, history and culture are also preserved. Congaree National Park is a great example of how conservation is important all over the nation for more than just the conservation crowd.”

Peterman points to several other examples that make his case. Majora Carter, a board member of The Wilderness Society, simultaneously addresses public health, poverty alleviation, and climate change as one of the nation’s pioneers in successful green-collar job training and placement systems.

In the nation’s capital on Nov. 2, the NAACP, the Hip Hop Caucus and the Intertribal Council on Utility Policy joined the National Wildlife Federation as the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee started the first of three hearings on the climate bill introduced by Sens. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). Even famed filmmaker Ken Burns made news recently when his documentary on national parks featured African American Lancelot Jones. He was a key figure in fighting various development schemes for the bay until the time Biscayne Bay National Park was established. Before his death, he sold his land at a discounted price to the National Park Service rather than reaping a windfall from developers.

Black South Carolinians are also part of a growing conservation involvement. Several residents with connections to historic sites near Congaree National Park have collaborated since 2003 to hold the annual SwampFest. A diverse crowd of people from all over South Carolina and the entire East Coast came out to eat good food, listen to music, enjoy the outdoors and even basket weave. Last October’s SwampFest was the park’s biggest and most diverse crowd yet with over 4,000 attendees.

“When we started with the Congaree Swampfest, a lot of people who lived within walking distance of the park entrance would not go in because they thought it was elitist,” said Marie Adams, full-time volunteer for Harriet Barber House in Hopkins. “Once we made the connection with the park officials, everyone was open to the idea about getting the local people involved. People started to see that this is in your backyard and you are a part of this; your family history is linked to this.”

The Harriet Barber House is an African American heritage site located just 10 minutes from Congaree. Adams is retired and calls her current unpaid profession a “labor of love.” Her two sisters Mary Kirkland and Carrie White, volunteer as well. The house was built in 1880 after the women’s great grandfather, former slave Sam Barber, purchased the property. The land has stayed within the family ever since.

“The Harriet Barber House provides a real opportunity that helps people connect the importance of protecting both our natural and historic places,” Peterman said. “This is just another great green example for a growing nation-wide movement.”

This is a joint release by The Wilderness Society and Harriet Barber House.