As a transplant from the South, I have spent a lot of time thinking about not only the connections between environmental justice and Juneteenth, but also the connections that Black people have to nature and the outdoors in general. For me, Juneteenth gives me pause to reflect on my own personal family history, and to remember to keep fighting for freedom and liberation for all people. It makes me reflect on why I work in environmental justice, and environmental education, and what I hope to pass on to the next generation.
Anyone who has met me knows that I love spending time outdoors (hunting, fishing, archery, hiking, and bird watching every blue moon), and that I am a child of the Blue Ridge Mountains. However, anyone who knows me intimately knows that I credit my father to this calling. He is the man who introduced me to the great outdoors, which led me towards environmental justice (although, my mother led me to environmental education), and he is truly a person “who cannot live without wild things.” Thanks to him, I know what a bob white quail sounds like, the difference between a gray fox and red fox, and how to catch smallmouth bass. He also taught me the importance of attending a Historically Black College or University, and to always take time to pause and take stock of the moment. It only seemed fitting that, since Juneteenth and Father’s Day are on the same day this year, I spend some time speaking with both my dad and my brother about our family history and what has been passed down to us in the spirit of Juneteenth.
My father, Richard Morton, is a retired South Carolina Department of Natural Resources (DNR) Wildlife Biologist. He also has experience and interest in forestry, black bear biology, forest fire fighting, competitive ax throwing, and gardening. He is a graduate of Clemson University, and Tuskegee University.
My brother, Hunter Morton, has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural education, and a master’s degree from Clemson University in Wildlife Biology. He hopes to impact young minds in the outdoors and provide opportunities for them to become leaders. He is currently teaching forestry, agriculture, and wildlife at the South Carolina Governor’s School for Agriculture.
Taylor: Grandma said you were the youngest person to sharecrop, right?
Dad: I guess I was, in a sense. We had some uncles and cousins who stayed in the old slave quarters. They stayed there on an old plantation and worked on a salary to plant crops. When it came time to harvest, there were about six or seven of us, family and friends, including Eddie Crawley and Frank Crawley.
Taylor: Oh, some of those are folks on Mom’s side of the family, right?
Dad: Right, our families were pretty close. If you picked two bushels of crops, we gave one bushel back to the guy that owned the place and then we could sell the other bushel to him or keep it and take it home. So that was my connection to sharecropping. Granny often wanted me to bring them home for the family. It was a double-edged sword for me because I had to pick them all day and then help her shell them. I tried to sell them when I could to make money to buy fishing lures. I was probably doing that at 12, 13, or 14 years old. We typically gave our excess to folks in the community, who needed it after we got what we wanted.
Taylor: That makes sense. How much did you make?
Dad: It depended on what crops you picked. The butter beans paid the most. You got the most money for butter beans, but it took you twice as long to pick. Probably $10 a bushel for butter beans. Other things would probably average about $5 a bushel. As a kid I would sell a bunch of bushels to order fishing worms for $5, a honey bun and a drink cost about 50 cents.
Taylor: I think it’s so important that Black people are connected to nature and have agency and freedom. Our family was connected to nature in this really horrible way and now that we are no longer enslaved, how do you feel about making sure that more Black people are connected to nature in a positive way?
Dad: It was bad that we were forced to learn about nature in this way. Our family was forced to find the game for slave owners so they could have fun and enjoy, but they didn’t necessarily have to do all of the scouting or the field dressing of meat. So they learned how to do that stuff, and they were the best at it. During that time slaves didn’t get to enjoy pork ham, or beef roast, but because we had learned these outdoor skills we might have had a deer ham, or raccoon, or possum, or rabbit.
The bad thing about it is that all of those skills were thrown away because of the negative way that we were forced to learn them. I feel like over generations those skills were lost because only a few continued doing them. A lot of folks went from sharecropping and farming to the mills and things like that. Only a few kept their hunting, fishing, and farming skills up to date and passed them onto others. I hate that we had to learn it this way, but I’m glad that those skills were passed down to Grandpa YT, who passed them on to me, and I passed them onto you and your brother. And you both can pass them on to your kids.
Taylor: Hunter, what did you learn from Dad about hunting, fishing, and being outdoors, and why is that important?
Hunter: As a young person, Dad had us outside doing a little bit of everything from fishing to hunting, bringing us outdoors, bringing us to work with him, allowing us to be active and to further our curiosity in the outdoors. I looked up to him so much that my initial career goals and ambitions were to be a wildlife biologist just like him. I killed my first deer when I was 9, and we went on so many trips with him to trap geese, working dove hunts, and working hunts for youth groups. You name it, we probably did it with Dad.
At the time, I was just doing what I loved, and it gave me an opportunity to hang out with my family. Never did I think about being Black, not seeing as many Black people in that landscape, or understanding the transition that Black people had from rural areas to urban areas. I was just out there doing it and enjoying it.
By the time I joined the Future Farmers of America, I really gained a better understanding of the importance of my dad being outdoors and that he was one of the few Black biologists in the state of South Carolina. I learned countless things from Dad, but to hear his story and to know that he was sought out by the DNR was very important to me. It taught me a lot about perseverance as an educated Black man in a field dominated by white professionals. The passion that I have for wildlife and for teaching others comes from him and Mom. He still takes every opportunity to encourage others to hunt and fish – cousins, coworkers, anyone he knows. A good majority of what I teach in my classes today comes from him and his work as a wildlife biologist.
The impact that he has had on my life and my career is unmeasurable. There aren’t a ton of people who look like us out here, but we have to keep pushing to diversify these environmental fields. In my master’s program, I had the opportunity to work with Dr. Drew Lanham, and the Black Birddog Handlers in South Georgia. As someone who has their own kennel, I got to know more about the history of how birddogging started, and the impact that Black people have had in training dogs as enslaved people. The cultural aspects of all of this have been really important to me.
Taylor: What does Juneteenth mean to you?
Hunter: To me, Juneteenth has been really key to understanding the impact that Black people as a community, and as a culture, have had on the outdoors and environmental fields, and how far we still have to go. Juneteenth is one of those days where we get to reflect on where we’ve come from, where we are now, and understand that some things have changed, and others haven’t. It makes me think of my own background and growing up outdoors, and the passion for hunting and fishing that I grew up with. I’ll continue to hunt and fish until I can’t anymore, and hopefully I’ll make half of the impact that my father made on my own kids, students, and other Black folks who are interested in learning more about hunting, fishing, and the great outdoors.
Taylor Morton is the Director of Environmental Health and Education at WE ACT for Environmental Justice and uses They/Them pronouns.