National Wildlife Refuges Honor and Conserve Black History

abolitionist Harriet Tubman (right) and Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Maryland (left)
Abolitionist Harriet Tubman (right) used her knowledge of the woods and swamps of Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge to lead slaves to freedom.
(Photos: Blackwater Refuge: Earl Cunningham; Harriet Tubman: Swann Galleries)

Where can you go to honor Black History Month? To well-known shrines and some lesser-known ones: national wildlife refuges.

It’s true. National wildlife refuges help protect our nation’s history as well as our natural heritage.

Consider these stops on a refuge-based African American history tour:

Holt Collier National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi honors a widely admired African American outdoorsman of the 19th century
Holt Collier National Wildlife Refuge in Mississippi honors a widely admired African American outdoorsman of the 19th century.
(Photo: USFWS and Jimmy Smith/Creative Commons)

At Great Dismal Swamp Refuge, archeologists are studying maroon settlement sites occupied for two centuries by escaped slaves and their descendants. You can’t reach the remote dig sites. But you can take a boardwalk trail to a pavilion with interpretive panels telling how runaways survived the swamp’s heat and venomous snakes.  In 2004 the refuge was named part of the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom because the swamp offered some a treacherous escape from slavery.

Students assist with an archaeological dig at Great Dismal Swamp Refuge, VA
Students assist with an archaeological dig at Great Dismal Swamp Refuge, VA
(Photo: Daniel O. Sayers)

Abolitionist Harriet Tubman spent her childhood as a slave working on farms on or near Blackwater Refuge. Her knowledge of the area’s woodlands and swamps later helped her lead slaves to freedom. Blackwater Refuge protects much of the landscape that formed Tubman’s early experience and is a stop on the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Byway. The Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park is across the street from the refuge. The 2017 Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Conference will take place there May 18-21.

At Waccamaw Refuge, you can learn about the Gullah community along the refuge boundary on Sandy Island, where freed slaves and their descendants were deeded land after the Civil War. Gullahs, Creole people of West African ancestry, produced rice in what was one of the first African American-owned businesses in South Carolina. Islanders still schedule their lives by the tide. They commute to work by private boat.

At Bombay Hook Refuge, you can see the marshes off Bombay Hook Island where fugitive slaves reportedly hid to board boats for New Jersey. You can also hear about a rebellion at the Whitehall Plantation — on what is now refuge land — fueled by Whitehall slaves. And you can see a typical menu for that CCC crew whose most important job was mosquito control.

At Holt Collier Refuge, you can learn about the refuge’s namesake: a man born into slavery who became a soldier for the Confederacy, a Texas cowboy and a hunter who felled more than 3,000 bears — more than the number killed by Daniel Boone and Davy Crockett combined. Collier was the African American guide who led President Theodore Roosevelt on the Mississippi hunting trip in which the president refused to shoot a bear, resulting in the teddy bear toy. 

Let us know what you think of your visit on the Refuge System Facebook page.