They met lots of nice people, including foreigners, and were treated well everywhere they went. They learned about the history of the parks. And they were inspired.
“The most powerful connection came for me in Zion National Park in Utah, which has tremendous visual splendor,” Frank says. “But there is a palpable sense, you can feel it, that something bids you to be quiet, to be still, just for a moment, and understand the hand of God is there.”
The couple’s experiences are not unusual, except in one respect — the Petermans are African-Americans and discovered they were among the few people of color visiting the parks.
“Coming back across the country it was sinking in that we were seeing everybody in the parks except blacks and Hispanics,” Frank says. “It really got our attention that we were among the few people of color in Yellowstone,” Audrey says.
The Petermans decided that it was important to tell people of color that they should visit the great American outdoors, that they would enjoy the experience and be enriched by it.
Audrey, a free-lance writer, and Frank, a business consultant, immediately began working to expose America's urban populations to the nation’s many natural wonders and to include the perspectives of African-Americans and other minorities in the larger environmental movement.
Through their consulting firm, Earthwise Productions, the couple advises mainstream environmental groups seeking to diversify. They publish a travel newsletter called Pickup & GO! that encourages people of color to visit the outdoors. And they recently co-sponsored a conference in Atlanta, where they now live, called “Breaking the Color Barrier in the Great American Outdoors.” In addition, Frank is the Southeastern regional director of the Wilderness Society, and Audrey serves on the boards of several conservation groups.
They have written a book about the beauty of the national parks and the contributions that minorities have made to the parks system. It’s called Legacy on the Land: A Black Couple Discovers Our National Inheritance and Tells Why Every American Should Care. The authors will be in Birmingham to sign copies at Little Professor Book Center on Tuesday, Feb. 23.
In Legacy on the Land, the Petermans describe the unheralded contributions of people of color to the establishment of the nation’s parks and public lands. There were the African-American soldiers, called the Buffalo Soldiers, who helped protect the newly formed national parks of Sequoia and Yosemite in the early 20th century. There were the black landowners, the Jones family, who were instrumental in establishing Florida’s Biscayne National Park. “The contributions of people of color are commemorated in the national park system but it is not publicized,” Audrey says. “Few people know about it, and black and Hispanic and Chinese people don’t know because they are not in the parks.”
According to the Petermans, one reason that some African-Americans in particular do not visit the parks is a lingering fear — a fear based on the lynchings and other violence perpetrated on them for decades in this country when they strayed outside urban areas. The Petermans try to break through this with the power of information. “One of the primary impediments is that they do not see their images reflected in the literature about the parks or in video images,” Audrey says. “We started publishing Pickup & GO! with our images in the pages and talking about what incredible destinations [the parks] are and that you don’t have to be fearful.”
The Petermans also write and talk about the many other African-Americans they have met who are interested in the outdoors, including skiers, climbers and boaters. “There was no record of this in the media,” Audrey says.
The Petermans stress the importance of the National Park Service reaching out to the ever-increasing non-white portion of the U.S. population to insure that the parks have a constituency willing to protect them in future decades. “The superintendent at the Fort Davis National Historic site in Fort Davis, Tex., Chuck Hunt, is a white man,” Frank says. “He says that if we do not educate and inform and invite the changing demographics to the parks, they will be the demographic bulldozers who will erase the progress we’ve made. What people don’t know, they won’t protect.”
The Petermans continue to visit the many parks and other historic sites managed by the National Park Service, with the goal of visiting all of the nearly 400 sites. So far Audrey has visited 154 sites, and Frank has visited almost to 150.
They hope that more Americans, particularly people of color, will join them in visiting the nation’s public lands. “People should get out of their fear-based systems and experience the beauty and grandeur of the world which we in American are privileged to have,” Audrey says.
The Petermans will appear at Little Professor on Tuesday, Feb. 23, from 6:30-7:30 p.m., in an event sponsored by the Wilderness Society. Little Professor is located at 2717 South 18th St. in Homewood. For information, call (205) 870-7461 or visit www.littleprofessor.com/homewood.