When I first got into conservation it was thanks to the likes of many famous environmentalists with TV shows like Steve Irwin, Jack Hanna, Jeff Corwin, etc. When I moved away to college I learned of more environmentalists, naturalists, and scientists who contributed a lot to the history of conservation. However, while I was learning and absorbing information, some very important people were left out of the mix. I’ve grown to know of many “pioneers” and “important” people in the conservation field, but I can’t recall any of these people looking like me. Luckily, in college I had the opportunity to join a DDCSP cohort at my school, where I finally learned of wonderful black men and women in this field. Then I got to thinking, why do I have to go to an outside source to learn about black people in conservation? Surely they’re in this field too, working just as hard and making just as much change. Their efforts shouldn’t only be brought to light when we go actively looking for them. They should be taught about in classrooms the same way John Muir, Rachel Carson, and others are. This field can be very lonely and intimidating when you walk into a room and feel out of place because no one else has the same skin color as you. I find it easier to tolerate when I think about other black people doing amazing work. They motivate me to stay, reminding me that I belong and that my work is validated. Just because there are a lot of people out their breaking records and being the first at getting a title doesn’t mean they’re new to this field. There are amazing black environmentalists, conservationists, and scientists out there who have been devoting their lives since the very beginning. Few people know of their stories, and for some reason they’re being kept out of the vast majority of classrooms and lectures.
I’m here to shed the light on one particular person who I find very inspiring. Now, I’ll admit I myself didn’t know of too many black environmentalists that I could write about. I was aware of a few, but I wanted to learn of other inspiring people out there, so I went on a search to broaden my knowledge. Unsurprisingly, there were too many to count. One person I learned about instantly inspired me with her story. MaVynne Betsch, also known as the Beach Lady, was a multi-talented singer, environmentalist, and activist. She was born and raised in Jacksonville, Florida in 1935. Upon learning about her, I was amazed that I wasn’t taught about her in school, being from Florida myself. She was from one of the wealthiest families in the South, and was the great-granddaughter of Abraham Lincoln Lewis, who was Florida’s first African-American millionaire and founded Florida’s oldest African-American beach. Betsch devoted her life to preserving and protecting her great-grandfather’s beach. She was very active and passionate for the environment— she gave her life savings to 60 different environmental organizations, and appeared on countless news programs and publications. She lived her life to teach people of nature and its right to exist. She was diagnosed with cancer and lost her stomach due to it, but even after that she still managed to work for the causes she was dedicated to until she passed away in 2005. After reading many of the articles written about her, I know I couldn’t possibly do her justice with my quick description of her life and impact. However, I think her story is one that should be taught more often in classrooms and lecture halls. During her lifetime she impacted a lot of wildlife and people alike. I hope you go and look at some of the many articles written about her, and read about all of the amazing work she did and continues to do through her legacy.
In my quick search to learn about black conservationists I came upon a website (https://sfenvironment.org/article/celebrating-black-environmentalists-during-black-history-month) that listed and gave a quick bio of many black people in the environmental field. Some that caught my eye were Solomon Brown (the first African-American employee at the Smithsonian Institute) and Bryant Terry (a chef and food justice activist for health and the environment). I think it’s worth checking this website out and I’m sure you’ll be just as inspired as I am by all of the amazing black environmentalists out there.
Text Information: “MaVynee ‘Beach Lady’ Betsch's Biography.” Martin Kilson | The HistoryMakers, www.thehistorymakers.org/biography/mavynee-beach-lady-betsch-39.
#1: Thousandwinds. “MaVynee Oshun ‘The Beach Lady’ Betsch.” Find A Grave, 2 June 2012, www.findagrave.com/memorial/91185040/mavynee-oshun-betsch.
#2: Iman, Ital. “The American Beach Observer.” King Narmer's Palette Mystery Revealed and The Rastafari in Ancient Egypt, 2 Dec. 2014, unn13.blogspot.com/2014/12/the-unofficial-american-beach-story.html.
About the Author: Hanna Innocent recently graduated from the University of Florida with a B.S. in Wildlife Ecology & Conservation. She is currently interning at the N.P.R Hobe Sound National Wildlife Refuge in South Florida. She is interested in water quality and pollution as it pertains to the ocean and wetland ecosystems and wildlife, but also loves music, writing, and anything art related.