Celebrating Black Environmental Leaders

Happy Black History Month!

The environmental movement would not be where it is today without the efforts of Black Environmental Leaders. This Black History Month, and throughout the year, Delaware Nature Society honors Black environmental leaders and celebrates their contributions to environmentalism and justice.

Colonel Charles Young – First Black U.S. National Parks Superintendent

Colonel Charles Young - Black Environmental Leader

Colonel Charles Young (1864 – 1922): Colonel Charles Young was the first Black U.S. National Parks Superintendent, and he was a fierce protector of sequoia trees. Born into slavery during the Civil War, Colonel Young was inspired by his father, who escaped enslavement to join the Union Army to attend West Point Military Academy. In 1903, he became the National Parks Superintendent. In this role, he worked to ensure the preservation of natural habitats, built trails, prevented illegal logging, and stopped poaching.  In 2004, the Colonel Young Tree in Sequoia National Park was dedicated to his memory and accomplishments.

Dr. Beverly Wright – EPA Environmental Justice Achievement Award Winner

Dr. Beverly Wright - Black Environmental Leader

Dr. Beverly Wright (Birth date unknown – Present) is an environmental justice scholar and advocate, civic leader, and professor of Sociology at Dillard University. Dr. Wright grew up in Louisiana’s “cancer alley” inspiring her to research the intersection of race, environment, and health inequities. In 1992, she founded the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, she advocated for victims and called attention to the tragedy’s disproportionate impact on Black communities. In 2008, Dr. Wright was awarded the EPA Environmental Justice Achievement Award. Then, in 2021, President Biden appointed her to the White House Environmental Justice Advisory Council. 

Dr. Dorceta Taylor – A Founder of the Environmental Justice Movement

Dr. Dorceta Taylor - Black Environmental Leader

Dr. Dorceta Taylor (1957 – Present) is considered to be one of the founders of the environmental justice movement. Dr. Taylor was born in Jamaica, and in 1991, she was the first Black woman to earn a doctoral degree from Yale University’s School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. Dr. Taylor founded several programs to promote the diversity in the environmental field including the Multicultural Environmental Leadership Development Initiative, Environmental Fellows Program, and the Doris Duke Conservation Scholars Program. She is currently a professor of Environmental Justice and the Senior Associate Dean of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion at Yale University. 

Hazel M. Johnson – Mother of the Environmental Justice Movement

Hazel M. Johnson - Black Environmental Leader

Known as the Mother of the Environmental Justice Movement, Hazel M. Johnson dedicated her life to fighting environmental racism. Hazel was a community activist who conducted community health studies, organized protests, and challenged government agencies to address environmental hazards. She founded People for Community Recovery, served on the EPA’s first National Environmental Justice Advisory Council, and contributed to the 1994 Environmental Justice Executive Order.

Dr. John Francis – The Planetwalker

Dr. John Francis - Black Environmental Leader

Dr. John Francis’s (1946 – Present) environmental work began in 1971 following an oil spill in the San Francisco Bay. Following the spill, Dr. Francis gave up all forms of motorized transportation and took at vow of silence that lasted 17 years. During his vow of silence, he completed his PhD in Land Management, walked across the U.S., sailed throughout South and Central America, and founded an environmental awareness organization, Planetwalk.  In 1991, Dr. Francis was widely known as “The Planetwalker” and was appointed the UN Environment Program’s Goodwill Ambassador.

Dr. Robert Bullard – Father of the Environmental Justice Movement

Dr. Robert Bullard - Black Environmental Leader

Known as the Father of Environmental Justice, Dr. Robert Bullard (1946 – Present) began to study the disproportionate impacts of pollution in 1978. He was involved in one of the first environmental discrimination lawsuits, helped plan the First National People of Color Governmental Leadership Summit, co-founded the HBCU Climate Change Consortium, and served as the Director of Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University. In 2020, he was awarded the Champions of the Earth Lifetime Achievement Award by the UN Environment Program. He is currently a Professor and Director at Texas Southern University’s Bullard Center for Environmental and Climate Justice.

Dr. Wangari Maathai – Environmental Activist and Nobel Peace Prize Winner

Dr. Wangari Maathai - Black Environmental Leader

Dr. Wangari Maathai (1940 – 2011) was a Kenyan scholar and environmental activist. In 1971, she earned her PhD in veterinary anatomy and became the first woman in East and Central Africa to earn a doctorate.  In 1977, Dr. Maathai founded the Green Belt Movement, a non-profit focused on reforestation, conservation, and women’s rights. Due to her activism, Dr. Maathai was repeatedly imprisoned, targeted for assassination, and forced into hiding. Despite these challenges, she continued her activism. She was awarded the Right Livelihood Award in 1984, served on the Parliament of Kenya from 2003-2005, and in 2004, was the first African woman and environmentalist to win the Nobel Peace Prize.

George Washington Carver – Environmental Pioneer

George Washington Carver - Black Environmental Leader

Considered to be one of the most important Black scientists of his time, George Washington Carver (1864 – 1943) is credited with the invention of the crop rotation technique, which allows for farmers to restore nitrogen-depleted soil. Carver was born into slavery, and after the Civil War, at age 11, he enrolled in an all-Black school. In 1894, he was the first Black person to earn a Bachelor of Science. In 1896, he earned his Master of Agriculture and was invited by Booker T. Washington to teach at the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama. He is remembered as an environmental pioneer, botanist, agriculturalist, inventor, teacher, and advocate.

Dr. Tyrone Hayes – Pesticides and Health

2004 Margie Richards
2004 Margie Richards

Dr. Tyrone Hayes (1967 – Present) is an integrative biologist and professor at the University of California, Berkeley. After graduating Harvard with his B.A. and M.A., he earned his PhD from Berkeley in 1993. His research on the effects of pesticides on amphibians inspired him to become an environmental advocate.  Dr. Hayes’s research on pesticides was used in a 2012 class action lawsuit against Syngenta, and in response, Syngenta has repeatedly tried to discredit his work. Dr. Hayes has responded to Syngenta by publishing hundreds of papers and giving countless presentations on the environmental and human health impacts of pesticides and chemical exposures.  

More Black Environmental Action Leaders

Check out this past blog post, Honoring Black Environmentalists, by DelNature Environmental Advocate, Marissa McClenton.

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