An Earth Day Reflection on the Legacy of Black Stewardship in St. Louis

Outdoor Afro St. Louis Leader Duane L. Williams invites you to make Learning and Sharing Black Conservationist History an Earth Day tradition.

By Outdoor Afro Leader Duane Williams

What are some of your memories of celebrating Earth Day as a child?

My earliest Earth Day memory is participating in a drum circle in Forest Park in St. Louis. I remember feeling connected to other drummers but also feeling deeply connected to the planet. The experience reminded me that I’m not the only person who cherishes wild spaces and that we have a collective duty to steward and enjoy our lands. Since that day I use Earth Day as a day of celebration and reflection- celebrating the Earth while reflecting on my impact and what I can do better as a climate responsible citizen.

Since becoming an Outdoor Afro Leader, what have you discovered about the history of Black stewardship in St. Louis’s public green spaces?

I learned about the important role of 1743rd Civilian Conservation Corp (CCC) in stewarding Washington State Park.

The Civilian Conservation Corps Company 1743 was an African American company of the CCC, a program of the U.S. Army and the National Park Service which  developed state and national parks nationwide. On June 4, 1934, the men and officers of the 1743rd set up camp and began a 5 year project to develop in Washington State Park. To this day, their craftsmanship can still be seen throughout the park.

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How does knowing that Black people created the park impact your use of the park?

When I first learned of this history, I was immediately filled with pride and sadness. The pride came from having seen firsthand the masterful stonework and natural beauty in the park. But I also felt sadness because even though I was born and raised in St. Louis, I didn’t learn this history until I became an adult.

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This experience has inspired me to tell these men’s stories. Last year, during my first year as an Outdoor Afro leader, I hosted four events in Washington State Park, sharing the history with each visit and encouraging hikers to take those stories home and teach someone else.  In my second year as an Outdoor Afro Leader, I intend to continue to lift up this history through more events in this park.

Why is learning the black history of local parks important to you as an Outdoor Afro Leader?

I learn the Black History of my local green spaces in order to enhance the experiences of the folks who join Outdoor Afro St. Louis events.  When we hike in a park, I want people to know that regardless of what may or may not be written on the trail placards, these lands are part of our heritage. Outdoor Afro’s mission to celebrate and inspire Black connections to nature. Learning and incorporating local Black history in our events is an important way that Outdoor Afro leaders further our organization’s mission.

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What tips do you have for people who want to discover their local black history in their favorite park?

I think the most important tools are curiosity and your willingness to go deeper than the surface. There are times when a simple google search will open a whole new world, but it shouldn’t be the only resource. I encourage people to visit their local green spaces and study the trail placards- are their Black faces in photographs? If so, does the trail literature share their story?

It is also a good idea to speak to the park staff. They may have information that is not otherwise available. I also think it is important for African Americans to make sure their park management knows that African American visitors want their history reflected in park publications, programs and decisions about resources.

Finally, don’t forget your local public library!

What activities do you have planned for Washington State Park this year?

This year, Outdoor Afro St. Louis will hike, camp and canoe in Washington State Park. The first event will be a 6.5 mile history hike in June. We will do an up close examination of the  stone buildings and walls built by the 1743rd CCC.  Later in the summer, we’ll also do a I’m also planning a canoe trip down Big River. In the fall, we’ll do a group camping trip, and reflect on the 1743rd CCC in a shared meal around the fire.

What are your plans for plans for Earth Day 2016?

For Earth Day 2016, Outdoor Afro St. Louis will be practicing Leave No Trace principles during a camping in Meramec State Park.

Do you know the history of African American Stewardship in your region? Explore and share your research at #OutdoorAfro.

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