African Americans’ expertise in agriculture and natural resources goes back thousands of years—and we need to work to remake those connections.
This was part of the message recently shared by Alex Singleton, fiber supply manager for International Paper and a recent inductee into the Southeast Society of American Foresters Hall of Fame. Singleton spoke as part of the weekly Seminar Series event at the University of Georgia Warnell School of Forestry and Natural Resources, which invites experts from across all areas of natural resources to speak with students.
His talk, “African American and Natural Resources: History, Myths, Challenges and Opportunities,” drew from his own experiences as a fourth-generation landowner, learning from older family members about how to farm and cur trees. He showed a snippet of the 1952 documentary “Men of the Forest,” drawing parallels to his own upbringing.
The film opens with scenes of a Black family waking up and getting ready for their day. The youngest family member, a boy, is eager to work in the forest with his father and older brother.
“Think about how much passion that little boy had for working in the forest,” said Singleton. “It reminds me of my family and my friends. When I was a little boy, it was something you could do and think you were a man.”
But before considering the current relationship between African Americans and forestry, Singleton took the audience through a bit of history. There’s a reason colonists brought enslaved Africans to North America: They understood the skills involved in growing rice, cattle and trees, activities that were common across West Africa.
In the developing colonies, enslaved Africans cleared timber to make space for agriculture. They also honed hunting and fishing skills to supplement poor rations given to them by plantation owners and wasted very little of the animals they caught.
After the Civil War, literacy and land ownership rates among African Americans jumped—although unscrupulous land tactics created issues that today are known as heirs property. Even today, some rural land long held by Black families remains in legal limbo, as generations of undefined owners keep the land from qualifying for reforestation and other programs.
Still, at that time, said Singleton, many African American families began turning to timber for income.
“The timber industry started after the Civil War, and a lot of the folks who worked in the woods were like that family (in the documentary). My great-grandfather worked for the predecessor of WestRock,” he said. “But think about cause and effect. You have to know how things came to be if you want to change them.”
These connections to the land became more tenuous after World War I with the Great Migration and suffered another blow after World War II. Black soldiers returning home left their hometowns for urban areas, trading their rural life for one that looked very different.
On top of that, rural families may not have been aware of careers in forestry and natural resources to begin with. For many, selling timber was a way to put food on the table, but a job as a professional forester would be unheard of, simply due to exposure. “There’s still African Americans in rural areas, but there’s still a disconnect,” added Singleton. “Here I am, fourth generation—and my father didn’t know anything about professional foresters.”
He laughed as he recalled his grandfather talking about the “company man” at the paper business where he worked. Thirty years later, Singleton became that “company man.”
Myths exist at many levels, he said, which keep students of color from considering careers in forestry and natural resources. These assumptions feed into challenges that keep young professionals from seeking careers, and keep families from encouraging their children to follow a path into natural resources.
These myths and challenges can be overcome, but it takes a concerted effort across the board—from gaining exposure to career options to finding support when entering a new class or job or even just taking kids outside to learn how to hunt or fish. Developing an interest in the outdoors and showing children of color that they belong can open doors they may have never found otherwise. “You’ve got to reach out to these students and make them feel welcome,” he added. “That happened to me (as a student) at Clemson—at no point did I feel like an outsider.”