In 2006 Dudley Edmundson conducted a series of interviews with African American outdoors-people that culminated in the book Black & Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places.
A lot has changed, in the world, and around the United States, in the 17 years since Black & Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places was first published. Yet, when reading through the interviews, it is easy to see the common themes and energy that link all of their experiences with the growing outdoor community who LOOK like them and share their passion for nature and the outdoors.
Over the coming months we will be sharing the interviews from Black & Brown Faces in America’s Wild Places here on our blog, and we hope you can find your voice to add to those celebrating their passion for the outdoors.
Cheryl Armstrong, President and CEO,
James P. Beckwourth Mountain Club
The James P. Beckwourth Mountain Club was named after a famous biracial African American, James Pierson Beckwourth. He was a true legend of the West.
He was born in 1798 in Fredericksburg County, Virginia, to a white plantation owner and one of his African American female slaves. They moved to Missouri when Jim was about six years old, because they wanted to stay together, and it was easier at that time to do that there than it was in Virginia. Beckwourth was raised in Missouri. He was taught to read, as were all of his siblings. He was apprenticed to a blacksmith so he would have a trade. Around 23 years of age he was fortunate enough to meet General William Ashley, who founded the Rocky Mountain Fur Trading Company. Beckwourth joined the company as a hunter, and over his long fascinating life he was, among other things, a frontiersman and an exceptional explorer. In 1850 he discovered a pass over the Sierra Nevada Mountains that would lead pioneers into the Sacramento Valley of California.
He also saved the life of General Zachary Taylor, who later became President of the United States. Beckwourth was also war chief of the Crow Indian nation. He was adopted into the tribe and he pretty much lived with the Crow for many years. He spoke a multitude of Native American dialects as well as being fluent in English, Spanish and French. He was also one of the co-founders of the city of Pueblo, Colorado.
Our organization named itself in honor of Jim Beckwourth because of his contributions to the West and also because he was a real trailblazer and adventurous guy. We like to think that we honor some of that spirit of adventure and his legacy in our organization.
Childhood Experiences and Turning Points in Nature
I was born in Detroit, Michigan. My father’s side of the family was one of the original black families in Michigan. They founded the first Episcopal churches. My childhood was pretty unusual for African Americans at the time. My father was a doctor, and his father was a doctor and medical school professor, and education had gone on and been a tradition in my family for generations and generations. I guess you could say I had a very affluent childhood.
We had a house in Detroit where my father practiced medicine and proudly served inner city residents. He also had a home in Canada, across the river right on Lake Saint Clair. So I grew up canoeing, swimming and hunting in the summer. I fished and explored the woods around our home in Canada. My father had a boat and we got to water ski and do all of the traditional water sports. We would ice skate on the lake in the winter.
I grew up being a very athletic girl. I loved sports and the outdoors and being in the woods, immersed in nature. I loved being under the open night sky more than anything—it was good for the soul then, and it is good for the soul now.
What I Do in the Outdoors
I have been involved with the Beckwourth Club since I moved to Denver in 1995. In 1998 we started a formal program called the Beckwourth Outdoor Education Center, specifically to take urban youth into the outdoors for hiking, fishing, camping, backpacking, snowshoeing, whitewater rafting, canoeing and kayaking. We teach them mapping and compass skills as well as self-arrest training and leadership skills.
The reason we started the Beckwourth Mountain Club (it was formed in 1993) was because of our passion to bring the outdoors to inner city youth and residents. The organization is run by a terrific group of almost 60 volunteers, predominantly by people of color. They act as mentors, chaperones, hike leaders, instructors and historical reenactors. They mentor not only the young kids in the organization, but also the adults that come to our center that are new to the outdoors.
The membership is open to everyone and is about 65 percent African American, 25 percent Latino, and the remaining is mixed race, multi-race, Asian, Anglo and all combinations thereof. Membership is for families, singles and seniors. We do outdoor activities every single weekend, from easy day hikes, to climbs of Colorado’s peaks. We also do upscale trips such as orca watching on the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state, and trips to national parks such as Acadia in Maine and Yellowstone in Wyoming. The idea is to make these national parks and wilderness areas available to a broader population.
I also do a great deal of fundraising. That’s my job—I am the money beggar! I am the grant writer and public relations person. I travel around the country heading up panel discussions and workshops, doing presentations on our program. I guess you could say I wear about 15 different hats around here.
I spent many years in the legal profession, but eight years ago I was able to break away and do what I truly love and have a passion for. There is no comparison salary-wise between working for a nonprofit organization and being in the legal profession, but I would not do anything else even if you gave me a million dollars. I enjoy running this organization and doing what we do for the community.