'Contraband Decision' Day and Great Outdoors Month Call US to be Leaders

One hundred and fifty-three years ago today U.S. Major General Benjamin Butler made a decision in response to the major challenge of his time - the Civil War - and changed the course of history. Having just arrived and taken command of  Fortress Monroe off the coast of Virginia, the Major General instituted the "Contraband Decision," and declared that all enslaved people who made it to the fort would be considered as contraband and taken into the custody of the Union Army. 


 As this image shows, New York City and its environs are extremely vulnerable to the rising seas.


With thousands of enslaved people immediately risking their lives to get to the fort, Maj. Gen. Butler's action gave momentum to the call for emancipation being waged by giants such as Frederick Douglass, and pushed President Lincoln to declare the Emancipation Act. The effects of that decision can never be overstated.


Today on the verge of Great Outdoors Month in June, there is great need for a Benjamin Butler,and I am pleased that the Union of Concerned Scientists is drawing attention to the opportunity that President Obama has given us to make a difference on climate change, the defining issue of our times.


 In their report, National Landmarks at Risk:: How Rising Seas, Floods, and Wildfires Are Threatening the United States' Most Cherished Historic Sites, the UCS encourages us to contact our Senators in support of the $1billion Climate Resilience Fund President Obama proposed in his 2015 budget. It will "help cities, towns, and rural areas shore up infrastructure and better prepare for extreme weather. . .The fund also sets aside federal dollars for climate science research, including sea-level rise analysis, and emergency assistance. The Federal Emergency Management Agency, for example, would be given $400 million under the fund for "hazard-mitigation and preparedness-assistance efforts. . ."



If trees could talk: The 'Emancipation Oak' on the campus of Hampton University has been part of centuries of progress. Under its sheltering branches Mary Peake taught the children of 'Contraband Camp," and the Emancipation Proclamation was read for the first time in the South in 1863. StateofHBCUs


When the UCS contacted me last year about the report they were compiling on the threat climate change poses to our National Landmarks such as Fort Monroe, I was elated to help. The report released last week found that many of our historic sites and national landmarks will be underwater very shortly unless adaptive measures are taken and sea level rise is addressed.  Fort Monroe could be inundated by rising seas by the end of this century, even though it has existed in one form or another since 1609.


Too many people are apathetic about the issue because they think it's about saving the Earth. But what we're really trying to do is save ourselves and future generations from hell on Earth, a hell we are creating by degrading the environment so much that it may not be able to support human life. The Earth does not care. If humankind can't live here, another dominant species will arise that can tolerate the new environment - it's simply evolution at work.


An Annapolis statue commemorating Roots author Alex Haley during Hurricane Isabel in 2003. UCS Report .


America's population in excess of 300 million people is among the most privileged on Earth. Though we are only 5% of the world's people, we consume 25% of all its resources and produce almost half of the solid waste. Yet we remain stoically apathetic to our impact on the planet, choosing instead to "shop" as a hobby, and play virtual games. Only a sliver of people are focused on addressing the problem that climate change presents.


On this "Contraband Decision" day, the day after we paid tribute to our military and their families Memorial Day; on the verge of Great Outdoors Month, I invite you to wake up and take a look at the UCS report and become a Benjamin Butler. Sign the letter and send it off to your Senator. Talk with people in your circle and encourage them to sign it as well. To paraphrase Alice Walker and Sweet Honey in the Rock, we are the leaders we have been waiting for, so I'm going to stop looking for a leader and be the leader I desire.




Recent developments that increase my confidence in the evolution of environmental  leadership:


 Rue Mapp accepted the National Wildlife Federation's Communications Award alongside President Bill Clinton in Washington, DC April 30, and her awestruck children  who were part of  the occasion will remember it forever. Noemi Lujan photo, OutdoorAfro.com


Douglas Gray leads a birding tour in the 2014 Biggest Week in Birding in Ohio last month. Toledoblade.com Photo


Many Americans of color including Frank and me are dedicated birders.The Week generated more than the $30 billion it brought into the region last year. Which makes me wonder: If  John James Audubon (1785-1851) had been discernibly black and looked like his Haitian Creole mother, would he have been able to pursue his passion for birds and become the penultimate birding scientist of all time? How much human potential do we continue to discard when we dis-empower an entire "race" and "class" of people as a result of our self-serving distinctions? I hope this means we're coming full circle.



Dr. Carolyn Finney's new book, Black Faces, White Spaces: Reimagining the Relationship of African Americans to the Great Outdoors debuts June 1. She got her first copy last week and sent me this selfie. 


National Park Service Ranger Shelton Johnson is featured on the newly-released DVD Yosemite through the Eyes of a Buffalo Soldier, which inspired me as much as anything I've seen or read in years. You can get it here.


June 7 & 8 is African Americans in the National Parks Weekend when all are encouraged to visit a national park. Frank and I will be among more than 50 people of various race and ethnicities that will be part of the Buffalo Soldiers Pilgrimage from the Presidio of San Francisco to Yosemite National Park, honoring the black soldiers legacy as protectors of the park.



June 9 - 11 Rue Mapp,  Angelou Ezeiloand  I will be speaking as part of the American Recreation Coalition's  Partners Outdoors conference in Washington, DC.


June 23-26 Expedition Denali  mountaineers  will be speaking at the US Capitol as part of Great Outdoors America Week .  Their full-length film Expedition Denali: Inspiring Diversity in the Great Outdoors will premier June 24, 5:30-8 p.m. at the Jefferson Auditorium, USDA Building, 1400 Independence Avenue SW. The event is sponsored by the National Outdoor Leadership School and the Wilderness Society.




"We have fallen heirs to the most glorious heritage a people ever received, and each one must do his part if we wish to show that the nation is worthy of its good fortune," President Theodore Roosevelt said of our natural heritage early in the 20th Century.


This month and forevermore, let us show our worth by turning our loving attention to our national parks, forests and wildlife refuges. Getting to know and appreciate them is the surest way to inspire a desire to cherish them and each other,  while equipping ourselves to become the Benjamin Butlers of this age.


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