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While early European and American naturalists are credited with making great discoveries about the natural world, enslaved Africans and African Americans also made significant contributions to natural history but have otherwise been removed from the canon.

Recently scholars have begun to document individual stories of enslaved people contributing to our early understanding of natural history. For example, stories have emerged about Harriet Tubman’s knack for using bird calls as tools for communication along the Underground Railroad. Recently found journal entries of William Clark show that York – enslaved by Clark – was responsible for documenting new species of plants and animals as the Lewis and Clark expedition moved across the Western United States. Elise Lemire touched on the influence that African Americans living in Concord, Massachusetts had on Henry David Thoreau’s writings and the transcendental conservation movement.

These few examples highlight that between 1619 and 1863, enslaved and free African Americans contributed significantly to our current understanding of natural history, particularly in the U.S. Yet, their stories are not included in our classrooms, textbooks, or discussions. Men like Thoreau, John Muir, Carl Linnaeus, and Aldo Leopold have places in our narratives—but folks like Harriet Tubman, Jenny Dugan, Brister Freeman, and York equally contributed to our understanding of the natural world, yet have been intentionally erased. 

This exhibit begins the journey of documenting and compiling stories of African American naturalists that contributed to our early understanding of natural history.

Hear from Ranger Angela Crenshaw of the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park:

Our hope is that educators, students, and amateur naturalists will benefit significantly from this project. Educators will have resources available that allow them to further diversify the representation in their educational materials (e.g., lectures, reading lists, focused projects) and students and early naturalists will be exposed to a broader representation in the fields of natural history, botany, ecology, wildlife science, and conservation biology. Furthermore, recognition will be rightly attributed to those who contributed to early scientific thought but were denied the credit they deserved.

Press Next› to continue through the exhibit.

Cite this page › Chicago Style

Gallo, Travis. “Introduction.” The Enslaved Naturalist. John Mitchell, Jr. Program for History, Justice, & Race: Digital Museum. November 1, 2021.

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