Black hikers break the ‘green ceiling’ and clear a path for nature enthusiasts

David McCullough often gets sideways glances while he is hiking near Philadelphia. There is nothing immediately startling about McCullough, a museum educator with a studious look and a neatly trimmed goatee. But as a black man in the great outdoors, McCullough is usually in a racial minority of one.

“It’s conspicuous, you’re aware of it,” he says. “There are looks. You do get looks of concern, you can see that people are curious about why you are there.”

To counter that lonely feeling, McCullough joined Outdoor Afro, a group founded in 2009 and whose mission is to create a community of fellow African Americans who like to explore the outdoors – be it their garden, their local park, or hiking in national parks.

McCullough’s enjoyment of the natural world, something assumed to be an activity mostly embraced by white people, initially provoked bewilderment among his black peers when he was in high school.

“Every Saturday I’d go out hiking and I was the only African American there,” he says. “At school I’d get laughed at, people saying, ‘That’s just weird. Why are you out in the woods?’ I would get so excited at seeing a shrew’s skull and they would just look at me like I was insane.”

According to the latest National Parks Service (NPS) figures, just 7% of people venturing to national parks are black, with white visitors making up 78% of the total. Addressing this lack of diversity is something the NPS has made a priority in its centennial year – it otherwise risks becoming increasingly out of kilter with the changing demographics of the US.

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