United States

African American Leaders in Science and Conservation

This Black History Month, we highlight trailblazers across the environmental field.

Some of the people on this list are well known. Some lesser so. But all of them have made an indelible mark on the understanding and preservation of our natural world. They have served as trailblazers in fields that have not always had the benefit of a diversity of voices. We at The Nature Conservancy believe that conservation is best advanced by the leadership and contributions of people with widely diverse backgrounds, experiences and identities. They inspire us, during Black History Month and every month.

The first African American to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in 1894, George Washington Carver was a world-renowned American botanist and lover of nature.
George Washington Carver The first African American to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in 1894, George Washington Carver was a world-renowned American botanist and lover of nature. © Flickr Creative Commons/The COM Library

George Washington Carver
The first African American to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in 1894, George Washington Carver was a world-renowned American botanist and lover of nature who devoted his life to helping farmers successfully grow their crops. He’s most know for inventing over 300 uses for the peanut and developing methods to prevent soil depletion. After his death in 1943, President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed legislation for Carver to receive his own monument, an honor previously only granted to presidents George Washington and Abraham Lincoln. The George Washington Carver National Monument now stands in Diamond, Missouri.

First African American to serve as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency
Lisa Perez Jackson First African American to serve as administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency © Eric Vance/U.S. Environmental Protection Agency

Lisa Perez Jackson
In 2008 Lisa Perez Jackson became the first African American and fourth woman to hold the position of Administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency. Jackson earned a degree in chemical engineering and was one of only a handful of women in her class at Princeton University. Her career in the environmental field has spanned more than two decades and includes work reducing greenhouse gasses and fighting pollution.  She has said: “It’s time to be clear about this misconception that environmental issues are incompatible with civil rights issues. The truth is that environmental issues are civil rights issues.

A community activist and environmentalist who was instrumental in improving the quality of life in Brooklyn, NY.
Hattie Carthan A community activist and environmentalist who was instrumental in improving the quality of life in Brooklyn, NY. © New York City Parks

Hattie Carthan
Hattie Carthan had been interested in trees all her life, but it was her love for her home and her neighbors that sprung her to action. When her once tree-lined neighborhood of Bedford-Stuyvesant in Brooklyn started losing its trees at an alarming rate, she started replanting them herself. At the age of 71, Hattie founded Tree Corps to inspire young people to care for and plant trees. Her passion helped build a grassroots movement for more green space in cities. Carthan’s acts of community engagement and environmental action live on through the Hattie Carthan Garden and the Magnolia Tree Earth Center.

NASA research mathematician Katherine Johnson is photographed at work at NASA Langley Research Center in 1980.
Katherine Johnson NASA research mathematician Katherine Johnson is photographed at work at NASA Langley Research Center in 1980. © NASA

Katherine Johnson
Recently featured in the film Hidden Figures, physicist and mathematician Katherine Johnson is best known for her major contributions to the United States' aeronautics and space programs. As the first woman to ever have her name on a NASA report, she broke down gender and race barriers. Among many other NASA missions, Johnson contributed greatly to Apollo 11 in 1969, the mission that landed the U.S. on the Moon. Johnson was awarded the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2015 and in 2017 the West Virginia Legislature named August 26th "Katherine Johnson Day." 

A distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University in Houston, Robert Bullard is often called the “father of environmental justice.”
Dr. Robert Bullard A distinguished professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University in Houston, Robert Bullard is often called the “father of environmental justice.” © Global Climate Action Summit

Dr. Robert Bullard
Robert Bullard is known as the father of the environmental justice movement, which is based on the belief that all people deserve equal environmental protection. His efforts began with Bean v. Southwestern Waste Management Inc. (1979), a case in which an African American community in Houston rallied against the establishment of a landfill in their neighborhood.  In his research, Bullard found toxic waste sites were often placed within black communities in Houston. He’s since gone on to become an honored activist, author and leader in environmental justice. He is currently a Distinguished Professor of Urban Planning and Environmental Policy at Texas Southern University. 

Known as the "mother of environmental justice," Hazel Johnson meets former Vice President Al Gore at the White House.
Hazel Johnson Known as the "mother of environmental justice," Hazel Johnson meets former Vice President Al Gore at the White House. © Vivian G. Harsh/Chicago Public Library

Hazel Johnson
Known as the mother of the environmental justice movement, Hazel Johnson fought to improve living conditions in Chicago public housing from the 1970s until her death in 2011. She began investigating high cancer rates in her neighborhood of Altgeld Gardens and discovered the problem was environmental. Altgeld Gardens was built on a landfill surrounded by toxicity, and the air, water and land around it was highly polluted. Johnson went on to found the People for Community Recovery and was committed to environmental change. A hallmark of her activism involved working with a team of activists to collaborate with the Environmental Protection Agency and urge President Clinton to sign the Environmental Justice Executive Order

Official portrait of President Barack Obama on Jan. 13, 2009.
44th President Barack Obama Official portrait of President Barack Obama on Jan. 13, 2009. © Pete Souza

Barack Obama
Former President Barack Obama helped protect more natural habitat than any other U.S. President. The numbers are pretty impressive: 4 million acres of land, 856,000 square miles of marine ecosystem and 22 properties added to the National Parks system. Of particular note is the designation of the first Marine National Monument, the Papahānaumokuākea Marine National Monument. This monument is the largest contiguous fully protected conservation area under the U.S. flag, and one of the largest marine conservation areas in the world. It encompasses 582,578 square miles of the Pacific Ocean (1,508,870 square kilometers), which is an area larger than all the country's national parks combined.