African American Environmental Leaders

By Eva Lewandowski

February is Black History Month, and while it’s important that we remember and honor the contributions of African American year-round, this month is certainly an appropriate time to think about the African Americans who have had a substantial role in environmental history

There have been many African Americans who played key roles in environmental issues over the years, but the one that comes first to my mind is John Francis, otherwise known as the Planetwalker. Francis spent more than 15 years in intentional silence and went more than 20 years without making use of any form of motorized transportation. Without the use of cars, trains, or trains, he crisscrossed the country on foot, leading to his nickname. While silent, Francis earned several degrees, including a PhD from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he studied the effects of oil spills on the environment. Francis has a successful career as a scientist, environmental advocate, teacher, and author. His book Planetwalker: 17 Years of Silence, 22 Years of Walking, is a must-read for anyone interested in modern environmentalism.

Perhaps less well known than John Francis is Dudley Edmondson, a nature photographer and author of the book Black & Brown Faces in Americas Wild Places. I had the pleasure of hearing Edmondson talk several years ago when he visited the University of Minnesota, and his insight into the underrepresentation of minorities in our parks and wilderness areas was incredibly interesting. His breathtaking photography and inspiring lectures make him an important figure among modern-day environmentalists and outdoor enthusiasts.

Francis and Edmondson are just two of the many African Americans who have contributed to conservation and the environment in our country over the last century. Others, like George Washington Carver, lived well before that. There have been too many such exceptional men and women to describe them at, but you can read more about some of them on these websites:


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