Juneteenth and Exploring Environmental Liberation with Missouri’s Black Activists

For the first time in America’s history, the United States will recognize Juneteenth as a national holiday to commemorate the emancipation of the last enslaved African-Americans in Texas. 

The road to Juneteenth becoming a federal holiday was a long one and took a lot of groundwork by many African-Americans to be paved. But this isn’t the only movement of which people of color have been at the center. The environmental justice movement is one such example.

Black activists are often erased from conversations in the environmental movement even though African-Americans are impacted by many issues directly related to climate change. There are some activists in Missouri who are working to change that narrative.

Kendall Martinez-Wright, the first Afro-Latina transgender woman to run for Missouri’s House of Reprensentaives, reflected on how growing up in Palmyra, Missouri, made her aware of the issues affecting farmers in this region. 

“It became an important area in my life because I noticed that a lot of people overshadow it,” Martinez-Wright said. “There were a lot of Black and brown farmers throughout history in rural Missouri and I want to shine that light on their existence.”

The United State Department of Agriculture (USDA) recognizes the potential impact of climate change on farming through changes in rainfall patterns, extreme weather and changes in seasonal temperatures. As Black farmers often disproportionately struggle to secure loans and grants, climate change’s effects are devastating to these farmers.

Although often dismissed, African-American agricultural activists have always existed and have always embodied a spirit of resilience as they fought for equity. That spirit of determination still exists in the movement today.

Over a 100 years ago, 14% of farms were Black-owned, now less than 2% of farmers are Black.

This decline in Black-owned farms can be attributed to a lack of financial support, racial violence and increased migration to urban areas. But this is not the only area in the environmental crisis where history is leaving a lasting impact on the present.

Part of the purpose of the environmental movement is to ensure that people of color have equal access to outdoor and natural spaces. 

Debbie Njai’s love for nature began in the fall of 2019 when she went out for her first hike. Soon after that experience, she started Black People Who Hike (BPWH), an organization based in St. Louis that empowers, exposes and re-engages Black people with the outdoors. In the early days of attempting to attract more people of color to the sport, Njai sensed a widespread hesitation among people.

Njai attributes this hesistion to many factors rooted in the complicated history of environmental justice. Nationwide, national parks didn’t begin desegregating until the 1950s. Even after this, people of color may still not visit these parks today due to a lack of safety.

Njai believes the limited access to natural spaces, which has spanned across generations, plays an important role in today’s Black hiking culture. 

“In environmentalism, having equal access to green spaces is a big thing,” Njai explained. “87% of Black people in Missouri live in a nature deprived area, and that percentage starts with a lot of things.”

There has been a great deal of discussion on what effects the legacy of redlining and segregation in urban areas like St. Louis has left on the environmental health of Black residents. 

This is why for some Black people throughout the country, the news that Juneteenth will be recognized as a federal holiday was met with both excitement and concern. Many still believe there are other issues affecting Black people that need to be recognized and understood in terms of how they are related.

Intersectional environmentalism, a term coined by Florrisant, Missouri native Leah Thomas

“identifies the ways in which injustices affecting marginalized communities and mother earth are interconnected.” The term was inspired by professor and intersectional feminist, Kimberlé Crewshaw’s research on critical race theory, but now it is possible that the work of activists like Thomas will be banned from being taught in Missouri public schools.

Missouri’s HB 952 prohibits schools from teaching about initiatives like the 1619 Project, the Southern Poverty Law Center and the Zinn Education Project. The 1619 Project details information on the history of Black farmers and agriculture. The Zinn Education Project shares a teaching guide, A People’s Curriculum for the Earth, which spells out useful information on climate change and the environmental crisis.

The bill would allow the state to withhold funding from schools who don’t comply, which may leave gaps in students’ education on issues related to environmental justice. Introduced by Missouri State Representative, Brian Sietz (R), the measure has been referred to a legislative oversight committee.

“When you attempt to shut down something because you don’t feel comfortable, that is rooted in white supremacy,” Martinez-Wright said of the bill. Her mother was a school teacher in Palmyra, so she is an advocate for public education. 

“People need to learn the good, the bad and the ugly through any type of concept,” Martinez-Wright added, “because if they don’t have that recognition and they don’t see it, then history will repeat itself but it will be in a different way.”

The possibility of the erasure of Black environmentalist history is what motivates activists like Njai and Martinez-Wright. Goals of the movement have always been rooted in visibility and the goal of making an impact. African-American activists work to identify these issues and thoroughly address them.

As Juneteenth is celebrated throughout Missouri and the country, the meaning of freedom and what it means through the lens of environmental justice will be in the forefront of many minds. Celebrations will range from pageants, musical performances and parades, but will be rooted in the same commemoration: liberation. Liberties that Black environmental activists are still striving toward today.

Fairriona Magee is a graduate student at the Missouri School of Journalism specializing in health and environmental journalism.

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