I grew up camping in the Pacific Northwest. From the chilly, Oregon Coast, to the deep sapphire waters of the Puget Sound, my summers were filled with exploring the wonders of the west coast and the waters next to it. However, as I recall my beloved childhood summers, I realized something: I never saw Black people at the campgrounds.
The easy answer for this, often from the Black community has been “Black people don’t go camping, that’s a white people thing.” However, I find this answer unsatisfactory. Black people do plenty of things that White people enjoy. Historically, the only reason we do not do things often perceived as White is because we were banned from participating in that space.
Camping is no exception. The racist policies that aimed to bar Black people from participating in this national past time established camping, and the great outdoors, as White spaces. In short, s’mores and campfires weren’t meant for us.
It has always been easy to rent a camping spot, if you are White. The process usually involves a short application, a one time payment, vehicle registration, and then a polite introduction to the campground keeper when you arrive.
When I was a child, my White father always handled these interactions, easily securing our spot among the west coast trees and ferns. We were able to quickly set up camp and have our feet up by the fire within a couple hours of arrival. No one came over to politely question the presence of my White parents and I, only gazing from the distance with curiosity.
My parents’ Whiteness was an unexpected pass key into a White space. By being their child, my presence was not questioned. However, this had not been the experience for most Black Americans.
In her piece, Shenandoah National Park Is Confronting Its History, writer Kathryn Miles explores the national park’s dark history of segregation. While Lewis Mountain, a portion of the park, was created for Black visitors, Miles notes that, “…it was nonetheless understood that the rest of the park would remain the sole purview of white visitors.” Shenandoah is one of America’s most iconic parks, but despite belonging to the people of the United States, until 1950, it belonged to White Americans. Black Americans were allowed to participate in their own space, but full free access was denied.
The experience of segregated camping was not limited to Virginia. Out west, Black Coloradans could only find solace in nature at Lincoln Hills, a resort that welcomed those with melanin. Across the nation, camping was only allowed with other Black people, but not with White counterparts. Camping was an activity where Black people were allowed to participate, but never given full license to sit around a campfire with marshmallows and hot dogs. They had to be invited.
Segregation is key to understanding not just camping, but also the experience that went around it. By being segregated, Black people would not necessarily be able to enjoy the other parts of camping that make it an engaging experience: hiking, canoeing, and taking part in other adventures. (If you are regulated to a certain part of the park, it may not have all the services available.) For example renting a canoe for an afternoon on the lake may have been an easy experience for a White family, but for a Black family they could have been easily denied service by a company or had prices raised for the same experience. Outside of the stress of finding a campground where one could spend the nights, Black people had to also deal with the exhaustion of entertaining themselves and staying safe.
Segregation cemented camping as an activity for White Americans; it was something that they were encouraged to do with uninhibited access and freedoms. Their presence in nature was never to be questioned and camp sites, national parks, and other outdoor venues happily catered to their desires while placing limitations on Black adventurers. This inferred ownership of the outdoors and camping that has been carefully protected by White people.
As noted by Miles, in 1994, the National Parks Service experienced White backlash when they openly supported diversity in the national parks, receiving a letter to the editor of National Parks Magazine, from a anonymous author who anxiously stated, “If minorities do not like going to the parks, it is their loss. But please don’t let us be duped into thinking it is our loss. Many of us look to the parks as an escape from the problems ethnic and minorities create. Please don’t modify our parks to destroy our oasis.” The letter is a White plea to maintain the national parks as a haven where White people did not have to deal with the experiences or sights of minorities. Ironically, White people fled to stolen indigenous lands to be removed from any interaction with people who carried melanin in their skin. The 1994 letter also reinforces a key detail about the outdoors: desegregation of campgrounds did not end the the exclusion of Black people from participating in camping. It created a standard.
It is easy to see why a Black presence in a campground may be perceived as threatening. Aside from racist beliefs, it also has to do with perceptions of wealth. Black prosperity has always made White anxiety run wild. Camping is no exception in this regard as it has been an activity that demonstrates White wealth.
I remember my father proudly showing off our camping gear to house guests, or discussing our camping adventures to friends. While sharing the joys of a hobby, it was also a demonstration of our family’s economic ability, a keeping up with the Jones commentary for the middle class Americans.
“With the knowledge that camping was a segregated activity, and is one that is a billboard for White prosperity, it is no surprise that Black participation is instantly perceived as a threat.”
If you want to go camping, you should be ready to invest in quality goods. On the cheap end, a tent from REI for four people will cost $99, with more expensive tents setting the buyer back $920. When you factor in other costs like food, a grill to cook on, camping ground fees, etc., camping becomes an expense that only families with expendable dollars can afford. While camping becomes more affordable once you have bought the key items the fact remains that you need money to enjoy the great outdoors. In this way, camping has become a symbol of leisure within our culture. This relationship with wealth, along with the history of segregation, has created a space that is unwelcoming to Black people.
With the knowledge that camping was a segregated activity, and is one that is a billboard for White prosperity, it is no surprise that Black participation is instantly perceived as a threat. Today, the push against Black people entering a space of White symbolic wealth is still actively happening. In 2019, a Black couple in Mississippi was held at gunpoint by a White campground manager who accused them of illegally trespassing. More recently, this year, a biracial family was harassed by campground owners who told them “their kind” was not welcomed. In both cases, the presence of Black people was grounds for verbal and physical threats by campground managers/owners. The message was clear: this place is not for you, it was never meant for you; leave.
The battle for equality does not stop in the streets of Seattle, Portland or Minneapolis; it is also happening in the campgrounds of America.
Black people do not have a natural aversion to camping or the great outdoors; we have a natural aversion to racism and abuse. We don’t go camping because we hate mosquitoes, need heated rooms, or hate campfires, we don’t go camping because the industry has not been welcoming.
The first step towards seeing more diverse campgrounds is create welcoming environments for Black campers. One key way is to assure that our national parks and state parks are diverse spaces. This can be done with hiring diverse Park rangers, campground managers, and park employees who are representative of American society. Having diverse employees means that Black visitors to parks and campgrounds will be treated with the welcoming nature that White guests have always been given. By seeing people of our background in leadership positions at parks and in campgrounds, Black people will feel safe and be more likely to buy that tent at REI.
The second step is companies in the camping industry taking initiative to promote diverse leadership. Companies that own campgrounds, cabins, and RV parks along with those that provide local adventure experiences can also hire diverse employees who can assure the camping spaces are welcoming lodging destinations. In the same manner as the national and state parks, the presence of people that look like us signals we are in a safe place. Putting up signs that say “Black Lives Matter” are nice, but companies must show actions by supporting local diverse communities.
Outdoors segregation is part of our national history, but should not influence our present, especially in a time when camping may be one of the best ways we can enjoy socially distanced vacations.
Black people deserve to have fun, to go into nature and stretch out by a campfire and cook s’mores. However, for Black people to be welcomed into camping spaces requires White awareness of past inequalities that linger in our current outdoors culture. Black people want to explore our country, and younger generations are beginning to wander into the woods. One way or another, our presence must be respected.
August 13: Updated to include more of an explanation of how segregation would have barred Black people from taking part in camping related activities. Added link to E&E article I found today that relates to this topic.
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