African American Scientists, Environmentalists and Activists You Should Know (Part 1)


african american history month

Hello Internet. It’s February and you know what that means. Well, you might know what that means. In California the evergreen pear, Pyrus kawakamii, is in bloom and it’s limbs are heavy with white flowers. Valentine’s day, the pink and chocolate consumer love festival is coming up so plan your Kay-kisses accordingly. Most importantly, February is Black History Month in the US and Canada. (In the UK it is observed in October).

With the spotlight on Black History, it’s imperative that we take the time to focus on African American biologists, ecologists, conservationists and environmentalists (although the environmental movement be doing this all year).  How we have chosen to remember the history of these achievements is skewed. George Washington Carver, as impressive a genius as he is, has been mythologized and is often the only historical, African American scientist, let alone biologist or botanist, with name recognition. At the same time, Jesse Jarue Mark, the first African American woman to receive her PhD in botany, has been reduced to a historical footnote. The only thing I could find on her was her dissertation from Iowa State.

Hopefully they'll have exhibits on African American scientists and environmentalists at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. (By AgnosticPreachersKid via Wikimedia Commons)

Hopefully they'll have exhibits on African American scientists and environmentalists at the National Museum of African American History and Culture.

(By AgnosticPreachersKid via Wikimedia Commons)

This pernicious pattern skews the way we remember African Americans as biologists, conservationists, or players in the environmental movement. The Civilian Conservation Corps is fondly remembered for its role in the Great Depression and building national parks but often overlooked are the African Americans who served in segregated camps. More locally, we remember John Muir as the father of our national parks but forget that Sequoia National Park was only made accessible through the efforts of Charles Young, a captain of an African American company that built wagon-accessible roads into the Giant Forest and to Moro Rock. The lack of coverage is so bad that it’s widely and erroneously believed that African Americans are urban, detached from and uninterested in the natural world. To help dispel this misperception, here are some African American biologists, ecologists and conservationists you should know about.


Majora Carter: Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Majora Carter: Courtesy of the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation

Majora Carter was born in South Bronx, NY in 1966. At the time New York City was undergoing a massive demographic shift as white people fled to the suburbs. As the youngest of 10 siblings, Carter grew up in Hunts Point, a neighborhood of the South Bronx composed largely of Latino and African American families. Thanks to a number of factors including poor management, a budget crisis and fire insurance fraud, during the 70s and 80s 40% of the South Bronx was blighted by arson and abandonment. This did not dissuade the people who lived in the South Bronx, who mobilized to  save their borough and cultural history. 

An abandoned lot in Hunt's Point turned into an illegal dumping ground. 

An abandoned lot in Hunt's Point turned into an illegal dumping ground. 

Carter would eventually attend Wesleyan University and graduate with a BA in Film Arts. She went on to obtain her MFA from New York University. Searching for work while staying with her family, Carter began volunteering for The Point, a local effort to revitalize the neighborhood. At the same time Mayor Rudy Giuliani was planning on building a waste transfer station in Hunt’s Point. South Bronx already hosted several power plants, waste treatment facilities, industrial sites, highways and processed half of New York City’s garbage. Carter and Maria Torres, founder and co-president of The Point, built a coalition of local non-profits and neighborhood groups to block the construction of the plant.

That same abandoned lot in 2007, now a the beautiful Hunts Point Riverside Park (source)

That same abandoned lot in 2007, now a the beautiful Hunts Point Riverside Park (source)

Carter went on to secure funding to construct the Hunt’s Point Riverside Park on a former, abandoned construction site-turned illegal garbage dump. Shortly afterward she founded Sustainable South Bronx, an urban development, educational and environmental justice non-profit.  As an advocate for environmental justice, Majora Carter has worked to expand parkways in the South Bronx, created urban ecology programs and led green infrastructure projects like “green roofs” that reflect sunlight to reduce urban heat islands using plants. She also advocates replacing the antiquated Sheridan Expressway, an elevated highway that cuts the South Bronx off from its riverfront, with a green corridor of parks. Her TED talk was one of the six talks to launch the site in 2006 and has over 1 million views.

Majora Carter hosted and produced the radio program and podcast, The Promised Land, detailing local environmental innovators and movements. The program won a Peabody award in 2010.  She co-founded StartUp Box, an enterprise to increase opportunities in tech for people from the South Bronx in 2014 and continues to advocate for sustainable urban development and environmental justice. Her current projects include providing free public wifi and redeveloping the closed, Spofford Juvenile Detention Center in Hunts Point

O’Neil Ray Collins: Public Domain

O’Neil Ray Collins: Public Domain

O’Neil Ray Collins was born 1931, the 8th of 9 children of cotton farmers in Plaisance, Louisiana, Collins would, in his 58 years, grow to become an internationally recognized expert on genetics, famous mycologist and botanist, pioneering administrator, husband, father and grandfather. He grew up in segregated Louisiana where doormen would only admit people with light skin to dances. Distant relatives of his passed for white but became estranged from the family as they disappeared within white society.

Plaisance is also the seat of the oldest and longest-running Zydeco festival, a creole musical genre that surged in popularity during Collin's childhood. 

Plaisance is also the seat of the oldest and longest-running Zydeco festival, a creole musical genre that surged in popularity during Collin's childhood. 

Collins served in the Army in post-WW2 Europe, afterward earning his bachelor of science from Southern University in 1957. Under the tutelage of Constantine Alexopoulos , one of the preeminent botanists and mycologists of the time, at the University of Iowa, Collins completed his master’s and Ph.D. His dissertation outlined Collins’s the discovery of myxomycete mating types, a major discovery in the genetics and reproduction of fungi. 

The iconic Old Iowa State Capitol Building sits at the center of the University of Iowa campus  By Vkulikov CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

The iconic Old Iowa State Capitol Building sits at the center of the University of Iowa campus 

By Vkulikov CC BY-SA 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Collins travelled from university to university as faculty, obtaining tenure at multiple institutions and furthering his research into fungal genetics. In 1969 Collins was invited to and accepted a tenured position at the University of California at Berkeley. He arrived just after the Third World Liberation Front Strike and within his first year would see Bloody Thursday during the People’s Park Protest. When the University was forced to re-evaluate its programs, it tapped Collins to head a committee to establish the Ethnic Studies Department. He also helped establish the Graduate Minority Program within the Graduate Division to help minority students enter and thrive in post-graduate studies.

Dr. Collins arrived on campus during an upwelling of student protests. (source) 

Dr. Collins arrived on campus during an upwelling of student protests. (source

At the same time he was doing all of this, Collins continued to pursue his research and was eventually made the Chair of the Department of Biology. On a national level Collins led panels, study sections, and scientific counsels. Collins’s life was tragically cut short by Hodgkin’s Lymphoma in 1989. He left a legacy of excellence in research and academic leadership.


We hoped you enjoyed Part 1 of this post. Part 2 is coming up soon. If you liked this post, feel free to donate or volunteer your time at our community nursery or at a planting event. We at Our City Forest are nothing without the generous support of our volunteers and donors. Thank you for helping us make Silicon Valley green.  

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