Outdoor Afro group works to get diverse populations to enjoy the great outdoors

On a hot July afternoon at Eno River State Park in Durham, a group of hikers assembled. The day had been unbearably muggy, and a thunderstorm loomed in the distance. Despite the sweat streaming down a few faces, the group was there for a hike, and they weren’t giving up.

The hikers were part of the Raleigh-Durham network of “Outdoor Afro,” a national organization aimed at getting African Americans outdoors.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of Outdoor Afro’s conception in Oakland, California. Yanira Castro, the nonprofit’s communication director, said that last year Outdoor Afro connected about 35,000 people in the United States with nature through activities such as hiking, camping, rock climbing and cycling.

Here’s how an organization started in Oakland lead years later to a sweltering but lovely hike in Durham.

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Hikers from the Eno River Outdoor Afro hike take a moment to cool off. Jennifer DeMoss Jennifer DeMoss

Busting stereotypes

Outdoor Afro founder Rue Mapp first started what she called “a kitchen table blog” on her outdoor activities out of her Oakland home. She explained how she developed a love for the outdoors through her adoptive parents, who had left the Jim Crow South in the 1940s and built a rural paradise north of Oakland.

Mapp said the blog came about after she noticed that she didn’t always see a lot of other African Americans enjoying the outdoors or see many representations of that in advertising. When interest in her blog began to pick up, she put out a call for more African American leaders to begin guiding outdoor trips.

“I think there are these old stereotypes of black people that black people don’t swim or camp,” Castro explained. “Outdoor Afro shows people there are other people like you who you can go outside with and feel comfortable. We say it’s like finding your tribe.”

Beky Branagan was one of the first Outdoor Afro leaders, and she’s been exploring nature with participants in the Triangle area for eight years. The Raleigh-Durham network now has more than 3,000 members.

Branagan recalled an OA trip to hike Clingmans Dome in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. One of the hikers wasn’t in the best shape and decided she would rest on a bench while the rest walked to the top. But as the group was enjoying the view from the top, strangers began telling them the woman who had stayed behind was now headed their way.

“All of the people that just happened to be climbing that day were cheering her on her way up Clingmans Dome and she made it up,” said Branagan.

Barriers to outdoor access

Myron Floyd is professor and head of the Department of Parks, Recreation and Tourism Management at N.C. State University. He researches the roles of race and ethnicity in public park use, as well as kids’ activity levels in urban Durham and Raleigh parks. Floyd said that legacies of racism and discrimination can act as a barrier to African Americans who want to use outdoor spaces.

People of color can be hesitant to travel to national parks. National Geographic reported in 2017 that, despite African Americans making up 13% of the U.S. population, they made up only 7% of national park visitors.

“Because of some things in the past, we’ve not always been comfortable getting outdoors, if you look at history in the South especially,” said Anthony Wilson, who took part in the Eno River hike.

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Hikers take in the scenery after descending the steps during the Outdoor Afro trip to Eno River State Park Jennifer DeMoss Jennifer DeMoss

Branagan said that sometimes people act surprised to see a group of African Americans enjoying the outdoors.

Outdoor Afro leaders research and tell stories of local black history during trips, Castro said. She mentioned Shelton Johnson’s well-known interpretive work with the Buffalo Soldiers at Yosemite National Park as an example of a powerful cultural story. Buffalo Soldiers were African American Army troops, some of whom patrolled Yosemite and Sequoia National Parks, fighting wildfires and stopping poachers.

“Even in a large landscape like Yosemite and Yellowstone, it’s not just a natural ecosystem,” Floyd said. “People want to hear the cultural stories there too, especially about their ethnicity or cultural group.”

‘Black joy and power’

Branagan was quick to point out that many African-Americans definitely enjoy time outdoors.

Added Castro, “We know that we belong outdoors. And we focus on black joy and power.”

Outdoor Afro hikes aren’t just attended by African Americans. Castro said that people can bring others close to them regardless of race. As long as the outings remain centered on black people and rooted in black history, she said it’s just fine.

The Eno River hike was Elizabeth O’Neill’s first time on an Outdoor Afro event. She said the sounds of birds and water can be therapeutic. Still, she said she hasn’t seen a lot of outdoor groups for African Americans.

“I think the most unusual part about it was just minorities getting outdoors in nature and it not being strange or weird,” she said.

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Jennifer DeMoss is a science intern at The News & Observer through a fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Science. Jennifer, an anthropologist with training in forest ecology and botany, is looking forward to covering the latest research in the North Carolina area.