Jay Reeves, AP, May 25, 2008
The throngs filling campgrounds across America this weekend will include hardy outdoors types and those who prefer creature comforts, but they’ll have at least one important thing in common: Nearly all of them are white.
A small but committed group of campers is trying to change that by growing a generation of black campers, one person at a time.
The National African-American RVers Association is composed almost exclusively of black people who camp, although it includes a few whites and Hispanics. The group doesn’t have much money to buy ads or solicit new members.
Instead, it always holds its major national gathering in July when schools are out so children and grandchildren can come along.
Getting more blacks into the woods would mean breaking decades of stereotypes and overcoming a long-standing leeriness that members say many have about camping. Bad things happen to black people in the woods, the story goes, and they can’t afford recreational vehicles.
Lemuel Horton, Southern regional director for the black campers’ group, said that for years many blacks were simply afraid to camp.
“They felt like a black person out by yourself just wasn’t personally safe,” said Horton, of Decatur, Ga. “But traveling all over the United States and Canada since the 1970s, I’ve had no problem.”
Joseph [Lawrence Joseph, a black camper] said the idea of camping creates an uneasiness among some blacks that’s strong enough to prevent many from ever venturing into the outdoors, yet difficult to explain.
“It’s just a feeling that it’s not somewhere they ought to be,” said Joseph.
States including Washington and California have launched programs to get minorities interested in outdoors recreation including camping, and so has the National Park Service.
Longtime park ranger Shelton Johnson, who is black, said he began telling the story of black buffalo soldiers at Yosemite National Park in California partly to lure more black visitors. Johnson has seen more minority visitors in recent years, but there’s still not many.
Founded by a small group of enthusiasts 16 years ago, the National African-American RVers Association has about 3,000 member families nationwide. Most are in the warm-weather South, and hundreds of rigs show up at regional gatherings called rallies.