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 a whole.

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, 2002.

2 "African Farming Techniques," downloaded from http://www.historylink101.com/history_of_farm.htm on January 4, 2002.

3 Ibid.

4 Ibid.

5 Timeline.

6 Ibid.

7 Ibid.


The Center for Environmental Justice is a joint program of Project 21 and the National Center's John P. McGovern, M.D. Center for Environmental and Regulatory Affairs

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