Celebrating Black History Month
An Interview with Jerome Ford
February is Black History Month, the annual celebration of achievements by African Americans and the roles they had in U.S. history. The event originally grew out of “Negro History Week,” the idea of historian Carter G. Woodson and other prominent African Americans. It was timed for the birthdays of Abraham Lincoln, and famed escaped slave who became a leader in the abolitionist movement, Frederick Douglass.
African Americans have a rich history in our nation’s conservation and environmental history – although mostly unknown. For example, you may not have known that the very first polar bear specimen received by the Bureau of Biological Survey (which combined with the Bureau of Fisheries in 1940 to become the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) was shot by Matthew Henson, an African American explorer who led and accompanied the famed explorer Robert Peary on his journey to the Arctic and the North Pole. And during their 1908-1909 expedition, it was actually Matthew Henson to reach the North Pole first, making him the first American to stand on top of the world.
It’s also unlikely that you knew that John James Audubon, yes, THE John James Audubon who painted and cataloged the birds of North America, was a black French American ornithologist. He was the illegitimate son of a French sea captain and his slave mistress. He grew up exploring the outdoors, drawing and collecting the wildlife and birds he encountered. After he moved to Pennsylvania, he collected birds’ nests and documented bird migratory patterns, and used his observations to create the Birds of America books, which have become some of the most well-known books on natural history across the globe.
We don’t need to look far to explore conversations with our own colleagues to learn about how wildlife conservation and science has improved because of African Americans in our collective conservation history. To honor the role that African Americans have had in the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, we sat down and talked to Jerome Ford, the Assistant Director for the Migratory Bird Program. Jerome shared his story with us, and we invite you to listen.