It’s nearly summer, and there are a couple things you’re probably going to do for fun: Go to the beach, attend a barbecue, maybe a ball game if that’s what you’re into.
And if you’re white, you might go visit a state or national park.
The fact is that white people go to national parks way more than black people. This has been known for some time: A 2011 study by the parks department found that minorities made up only 22% of national park visitors, even though they made up 37% of the overall population. But new research based on a state park in Texas drills down into the historical reasons behind the low visitation rates of black people in particular, and the results are eye-opening.
In his research at Cedar Hill State Park outside of Dallas, KangJae Lee, an assistant professor at the University of Missouri, explored why black residents were reluctant to visit the park even though they lived nearby. Wrapped up in scant black park visitation, Lee found, were fears of discrimination, the effects of slavery and segregation on the leisure habits of black Americans, and the history of wilderness as a site of trauma for black bodies.
Cedar Hill is 1,116 acres tucked into the larger Dallas-Fort Worth area. The neighboring community, Lee said, is 65% black, yet black people make up less than 10% of the park’s visitors. He said his research reveals the local context behind a national trend.
Lee found that the community’s entrenched racism and fraught racial relations dating back to slavery were partly to blame. He discovered that the park was once a plantation owned by a family by the name of Penn. Currently the land is characterized “as a middle-class farm,” Lee told me—a label he called “bullshit.”
“The Penn family came to Texas in 1850, when a third of Texas was involved in slavery,” he said. “There’s no way that the Penn family managed that property on their own.” In fact, according to Lee’s research, the lore is that the owner of the land, John Anderson Penn, had a sexual relationship with one of his slaves. Nowhere today is there a plaque or recognition of the land once being a site that sponsored slavery or acknowledging the family’s history as slave owners.
The more recent history of racism also impacts black engagement in the state park, Lee found. “Years ago, we couldn’t stay at hotels. You couldn’t go to the diners. Negros only, whites only, ” said Sam, one of the local residents Lee interviewed. “So where you might have Caucasians, they can go anywhere they wanna go and enjoy whatever they wanna enjoy, Negros couldn’t,” he said. “That culture was, well, it was embedded in us, alright?” Staying home, Sam said, is a way “not to deal” with a racism that persists, one that allows white bodies to move freely in public.
Yosemite Park Ranger Shelton Johnson, a nature enthusiast, is something of an ambassador to black Americans. “It’s not going to happen right away,” Johnson said in an interview with Our National Parks, a government website. “We’re all suffering from ‘Nature Deficit Disorder,’” said Johnson. “We learn to recreate from our parents, so if our parents never went to parks, as is the case with most minorities, the kids won’t even think to go to national parks. So when they go to take a vacation, the thought of experiencing the wilderness is entirely foreign. Because they don’t know what to expect from a visit to a park, it creates an anxiety, and the purpose of a vacation is to rid oneself from all anxiety.”
The solution, Lee says, is the “million-dollar question.” But one promising way to get more African Americans into the park is by attracting the younger generations. “Changing the culture takes time. It’s not something we can do in a few days,” Lee said. “Educating these young generations about the value of the park and its benefits to them,” is key he said. “If we cultivate the culture to the younger generation, they’ll be more likely to visit when they grow up,” an approach Lee calls long-term instead of a bandage treatment.
“The fix is if we can get that African American family here. It will take a pioneer, because it’s not the “black thing” to do now,” Johnson told Our National Parks. “But firsts are a powerful thing. And the first time you take in a sight like you do here, it’s enough to change you.”
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.