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A Black History of Natural History

The knowledge, labor and sacrifice of Black peoples has contributed to natural history and its associated collections for centuries. Here we pay homage to those named and unnamed, and share the stories of those we managed to find. It is important that we recognize the nuance inherent in the historical contributions of our predecessors. While their discoveries undeniably advance our knowledge of the natural world, the context of those “discoveries” matter. The harm inflicted in past pursuits of natural history, be it theft of traditional knowledge repackaged as “new to western science”, or physical violence perpetuated by the natural historians themselves, that harm was unnecessary. As Black people navigating spaces originally built to exclude us as colleagues, while simultaneously exploiting our knowledge and our bodies, we should take care not to enter these spaces as the next generation of gate keepers. Though we are trained in the western tradition of science, we have to embrace different ways of knowing, the ways our ancestors knew, and fully acknowledge their contributions. As we gain access to spaces with these kinds of legacies, let us leverage our identities to change the spaces for the better, not allow them to change us.

Historical and Contemporary Profiles

Do you know of more historical or contemporary Black contributors to natural history knowledge, collections or museums that we can highlight? If you would like to suggest a feature, or write a profile for the collection, please get in touch using the contact box below.

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