As he stood at the canyon’s rim, the towering intellectual and civil rights activist described the sight that spread before his eyes. The Grand Canyon’s “grandeur is too serene – its beauty too divine!” Du Bois wrote. “Behold this mauve and purple mocking of time and space! See yonder peak! No human foot has trod it. Into that blue shadow, only the eye of God has looked.”
But Du Bois’ experience undermined a widely held assumption that was reinforced by early conservationists like Theodore Roosevelt – that only white people could appreciate the landscapes of national parks. For Roosevelt and his progressive allies, saving nature was connected to saving the white race.
Du Bois traveled to national parks anyway, and he understood that most other Black people were unable to follow because of the cost and discrimination found at every turn. It still bothered Du Bois, however, that Black people were unable to experience a joy similar to what he found at what would later become Acadia National Park in Maine.
“Why do not those who are scarred in the world’s battle and hurt by its hardness travel to these places of beauty and drown themselves in the utter joy of life?” Du Bois asked.
The progressive politics of racial purity
President Theodore Roosevelt has been recognized as a “wilderness warrior” for his unprecedented protection of lands and wildlife. But his conservation record was tied to the belief of white racial superiority that was embodied in eugenics, the racist pseudoscience of the early 20th century that tried to determine who was fit or unfit to have children.
One initiative of the Roosevelt administration was the creation of the National Conservation Commission on June 8, 1908. Though Congress eliminated the commission’s budget after six months, its task was to take an inventory of all the nation’s natural resources and make recommendations on how best to protect them.
It offered 10 far-reaching recommendations on topics as diverse as public health to labor regulation and the elimination of poverty and crime. The 10th recommendation advocated for “eugenics, or hygiene for future generations” that connected federal conservation to white supremacy.
Pinchot’s report called for the forced sterilization of “degenerates generally” – namely, most immigrants, Black and Indigenous people, poor whites and people with disabilities. It also sought to increase the breeding of what they believed to be racially superior races, such as white Anglo Saxons and people of Scandinavian heritage.
“The problem of the conservation of our natural resources is therefore not a series of independent problems, but a coherent, all-embracing whole,” the report concluded. “If our nation cares to make any provision for its grandchildren and its grandchildren’s grandchildren, this provision must include conservation in all its branches – but above all, the conservation of the racial stock itself.”
Another of Roosevelt’s close associates took an even more pointed approach to white supremacy and conservation.
Madison Grant had worked with Roosevelt since the 1890s and was an avid conservationist. He was also the author of an influential book on eugenics, “The Passing of the Great Race,” a racist tome arguing the superiority of what he called the “Nordic race.”
New agency, same philosophy
The election in 1912 of President Woodrow Wilson saw the implementation of discriminatory policies.
In 1913, for instance, Wilson ordered the federal workforce to be racially segregated, first at the U.S. Post Office, where most Black federal employees worked, and then at the Treasury Department, which had the second-largest number of Black workers.
Not surprisingly, this new park service had the same racial policies of the Wilson administration and abided by local laws on racial segregation. That meant Black nature enthusiasts would continue to be prohibited in national parks in most of the former Confederate South.
My research has shown that the National Park Service catered exclusively to the expectations and needs of white visitors and it had very few Black employees or visitors. The policies included racially segregated dining rooms, picnic grounds and restrooms. Maps and signs in some parks directed Black visitors away from whites and to designated Black sections of the parks.
The official policy didn’t end until 1945, when U.S. Interior Secretary Harold Ickes outlawed segregation at national parks. But local segregation remained in practice in most Southern states for decades and still excluded Black visitors.
National parks as worth the struggle
Du Bois was willing to endure the racist laws that made traveling unpleasant for Black people seeking to find joy in natural beauty.
“Did you ever see a ‘Jim-Crow’ waiting-room?” Du Bois wrote in “Darkwater,” referring to the system of laws and social customs that disenfranchised Black people.
“Usually there is no heat in winter and no air in summer. To buy a ticket is torture; you stand and stand and wait and wait until every white person at the ‘other window’ is waited on,” he explained. “Then the tired agent yells across, because all the tickets and money are over there.”
For Du Bois, the struggle was worth the experience of the Grand Canyon.
“There can be nothing like it,” Du Bois wrote. “It is the earth and sky gone stark and raving mad… It is human – some mighty drama unseen, unheard, is playing there its tragedies or mocking comedy, and the laugh of endless years is shrieking onward from peak to peak, unheard, unechoed, and unknown.”
The sight of the Grand Canyon, Du Bois concluded, “will live eternal in my soul.”
The same view has had the same effect on generations of visitors – Black, white and of countless other backgrounds – ever since.
The article In the worst of America’s Jim Crow era, Black intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois found inspiration and hope in national parks by Thomas S. Bremer, Associate Professor of Religious Studies and American Religious History, Rhodes College was published on 14/12/2023 by theconversation.com