Archives, Images, and Evolving Questions: Mapping the Great Outdoors in Black New York

Editor’s Note: It’s EHN’s three-year anniversary this week! We’re celebrating all week long by featuring one piece every day to mark the occasion. Today, Amanda Martin-Hardin shares her digital humanities project on “The Great Outdoors in Black New York” with us and how it came to be.

In 2016, while sifting through an archival collection at the Rare Book & Manuscript Library at Columbia University, I came across a photograph of two ebullient boys in matching “Camp Nathan Hale 1949” T-shirts rowing a boat together. The image is quintessentially summer camp, featuring giddy adolescents participating in a collaborative outdoor activity. However, the photo is also rare in its depiction of a racially integrated summer camp prior to the 1960s.

That photograph and its historical context are representative of my research interests: the questions of how, where, and to what extent white Americans enacted racial segregation in the outdoors, and how people of color resisted this racial exclusion. In 2016, these issues emerged in contemporary national conversations about a lack of diversity in national parks. A 2014 Outdoor Foundation study also stated that 73 percent of Americans who participated in outdoor activities identified as white. At first, these statistics led me to speculate that the outdoors in the U.S. have long been a hegemonic white space. So I decided to begin researching accounts of racial discrimination and white supremacy in the outdoors.

However, throughout the next few years of graduate school, I took note of photographs of African Americans enjoying the outdoors during the first half of the twentieth century (the age of Jim Crow) in various archives. I observed fashionable women posing for portraits on Orchard Beach; a teenage boy proudly displaying a fish he caught in Prospect Park; and a playful encounter among three young adults on a boat dock in the Bronx. When I began assembling some of these images into a digital map for Dr. Frank Guridy’s “Black New York” course, the growing database of images necessitated a more nuanced analysis than my initial understanding of an overwhelmingly white wilderness.

To be clear, racist discrimination and segregation have undoubtedly occurred in green spaces, just as they have occurred elsewhere in the U.S. This has resulted in ongoing racial disparities that continue to impact access to the outdoors for many people of color. Despite a history marked by erasure and discrimination, however, these archival photographs demonstrate that Black New Yorkers have fought for, enjoyed, and reimagined the outdoors as a more equitable environment for nearly two centuries.

A major tenet of producing history is allowing archival research to shape one’s findings, rather than attempting to shoehorn evidence to confirm a preconceived theory. These photographs demanded different questions from the ones I originally proposed. And, as often happens while researching history projects, I now have far more questions than answers. Questions like: Why have histories of African Americans in the outdoors been erased over time, and how can historians correct this erasure? How and where has white supremacy curtailed access to the outdoors for Black Americans? And how have Black outdoor enthusiasts resisted their exclusion from the outdoors over time?

I have yet to land on solid answers to each of these questions, nor have I determined how (or whether) these photographs will come together into a cohesive written account in my dissertation. Yet the act of combining them into a digital map has made it clear that there is abundant historical evidence of African Americans fighting for and enjoying their rights to experience the outdoors in the United States.

*Cover image: “Negro family,” George Bradford Brainerd photograph collection, Brooklyn Museum/Brooklyn Public Library, Center for Brooklyn History. Cropped by editor.

[Cover image description: An African American family of five sitting on Coney Island beach with tent and section of boardwalk in background.]

Edited by Shelby Brewster, reviewed by Elizabeth Hameeteman.

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