Racial history may explain low park visitor rates for African Americans

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COLUMBIA - All taxpayers pay for public parks to run, yet not all members of the public visit their national and state parks. According to the National Park Service, African-American park visitors are the most underrepresented group. One mid-Missouri researcher said the explanation may be centuries in the making.    

State parks in Missouri lack entrance fees, so staff do not always have personal interaction to keep track of visitors' races. But, some of Missouri State Parks' most recent research reports indicated the percentage of visitors who are black at certain parks varies from zero to 4 percent. Around 12 percent of Missourians are black, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.

KangJae "Jerry" Lee, a researcher and assistant teaching professor in MU's parks, recreation and tourism department, recently wrote a study identifying a possible reason why African-Americans visit parks in such low numbers. It involves the effect United States' racial history had and still has on African-Americans. 

"Many African-Americans' parents didn't enjoy outdoor recreational activities because they were not able to visit them," Lee said. 

Lee said the history of segregation and Jim Crow laws at public facilities deterred older generations from visiting state parks. Even though those exclusionary practices are now outlawed, Lee said black Americans may hold on to the cultural disposition to this day because it has been, perhaps subconsciously, passed down within families through socialization.

"We can't expect people to do something that their parents or grandparents didn't do," he said.

Shana White said she jogs at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park around three times a week. She's black and said her parents never pushed her to visit state parks or enjoy the outdoors.

"I'm not an outdoorsy person in the first place and neither is my family, and honestly the black families that I do know, I mean, they're not ones to be like 'Let's go to the park,' so maybe that's embedded in us," White said.

Bill Bryan, director of Missouri State Parks, said the agency has tried to create opportunities for people to enjoy the parks even if they were not exposed to parks before.

"We provide equipment and expert instruction to help people have experiences that maybe they didn't have growing up in their family," Bryan said.

Missouri State Parks identified "appealing to youth audiences, underserved clienteles and decision-makers" as an objective in its 2013-2017 strategic plan. Bryan said staff did not have a set benchmark in mind aside from encouraging all Missourians to visit the state parks.

Bryan said the Missouri State Parks also formed a diversity action committee in 2013 to seek input on methods to grow visitation numbers.

"We have increased over the past several years our use of digital and social media," Bryan said. "We can reach everybody that way."

While an online presence may attract a lot of people to the parks, White said the state park service can encourage more black people to visit through direct contact with them.

"Promote towards us," she said. "Promote to the actual community, because I don't feel like I see anything about people in the community."

Bryan said several state parks and historic sites explore African-American history. He said Arrow Rock State Historic Site is one, and it's about an hour away from Columbia.

"That's a site that I think people don't really know the African-American history of, but we're doing the best we can to tell that history there," he said.

Lee said it will take time to change this culture, but park agencies can start by focusing their attention on African-American children.   

"If we had these African-American kids exposed to natural environments and teach them how to appreciate and enjoy these recreational resources, statistically, it's more likely that they will revisit those places once they grow up," Lee said.

Missouri State Parks has partnered with schools in the past through programs like Children in Nature and the Walking School Bus at Rock Bridge Memorial State Park. 

Appreciating nature may not be all people are missing when they don't go to parks. Lee said African-Americans may be missing out on social and health benefits, too. Numerous studies have shown spending time outside can lead to better sleep, lower blood pressure and decreased risk for depression. Lee said going to parks as a family can also improve social bonds.

Lee said underrepresentation is also a matter of social justice.

"If this type of resource is not equally accessed by the general public, we are basically using tax dollars to please only small groups of people," Lee said. 

Lee's study concentrated on a state park in Texas, so he said his findings may not apply broadly to every state or state park.