- Associated Press - Monday, December 28, 2020

COLUMBIA, S.C. (AP) - Earl Hunter used to live pretty close to Sesquicentennial State Park. He has memories from growing up of visiting the park with family, but he never knew “Sesqui” had a campground.

There wasn’t really a reason to know. His family didn’t camp.

That’s since changed. Hunter, now an avid camper and outdoorsman, spent the past year building a business intent on dispelling a stereotype in the outdoor industry, Black Folks Camp Too.

After working as an executive in the RV industry and realizing he was often the only Black person in the room - or at the campground - Hunter made it his mission to tackle tough questions about who goes camping and why honestly, both reminding others that Black people do camp and introducing more Black people to camping in the process.

On a cool November morning - prime hiking weather - Hunter walked the trails of Sesqui with state parks Director Paul McCormack, discussing what’s become their shared mission: making state park campgrounds look more like the communities they serve.



Right now, that’s just not the case, McCormack said.

“The issues he’s trying to deal with are real. … They’re actual, tangible issues that we struggle with,” McCormack said.

This isn’t a new goal for the park service; it’s been trying. But so far, it hasn’t worked.

“I think the biggest challenge for a lot of people - I know it was for me - was to accept that the things you’ve done in the past, though well-intended, didn’t work,” McCormack said. “If you’re a results-oriented agency, you look at the results.”

So, the agency is trying something different.

South Carolina State Parks forged a partnership with Black Folks Camp Too this fall. For the next year, Hunter’s company will feature South Carolina parks on its website and other platforms and work with the park service to create marketing materials with photos and footage from actual camping trips, like a recent excursion that included, among other first-time campers, South Carolina State University’s head football couch Buddy Pough.

Hunter, who now lives in North Carolina, said it’s important to him that he’s doing this work in his home state.

“You always want to come to your hometown, take what you learned and bring it back,” he said. “For me, it’s my legacy to see more Black folks in the outdoors, to see them enjoying it freely.”

Plus, it’s good business, Hunter said.

The outdoor industry has been booming during the coronavirus pandemic as people work out their cabin fever through activities that take them into the fresh air. At South Carolina’s state parks, monthly revenue has been breaking records every month since May.

But as the park service, which has to sustain itself financially through its own revenue streams, looks to continue to grow its audience, it’s tasked with confronting the fact that it is missing a portion of its potential market.

“When you look at camping, which is a huge part of our revenue stream, and you see you’re not reaching almost 30 percent of the population in South Carolina, because you’re not attracting them - you are missing a huge part of that market,” McCormack said.

That’s part of what led McCormack and Hunter to their meeting, and those conversations about why these gaps exist and how they’re going to change it.

Hunter breaks down his philosophy into three steps:

REMOVE FEAR

When Hunter explains this first step, he said, he often gets looks that say, “Is he really going there?”

“Most folks don’t want to tackle the real reasons,” Hunter said, “especially in the South.”

Even if someone doesn’t think of it as fear and instead attributes disinterest in camping to personal preferences like an aversion to bugs, Hunter said the reality is there are historical reasons why a Black family may be less likely to pass on camping traditions than a White family.

Data show that disparities are particularly acute when it comes to public lands. A National Park Service report comparing census data to Park Service stats showed Black Americans made up less than 2 percent of people visiting national parks despite accounting for more than 13 percent of the U.S. population.

Sesquicentennial - the same park where McCormack and Hunter first met to discuss how to rethink the way the state agency approaches diversity - was a key piece of the history that made that park and others open to all South Carolinians.

From its founding in the 1930s until 1966, the state park system operated with “strictly segregated facilities,” according to digital exhibit compiled by the park service.

In 1961, a group of Black protesters, most of them local college students, attempted to the enter Sesqui, which was open to White visitors only. At the park gates, they were met with a squad of Highway Patrol officers. Those protesters didn’t gain entry, but their experience was used as evidence in the court case that eventually led to desegregation of the park system.

That history can still have an impact.

It matters whether camping is an activity that was passed down to you by family or had to be learned as an adult, Hunter said. That can determine if the idea of camping feels normal or somewhat intimidating.

That leads to Hunter’s next step: How do you make someone who hasn’t camped before feel comfortable trying it?

ADD KNOWLEDGE

First-time campers can and should have questions, Hunter said: where to camp, what to bring, what to sleep in, what to eat, how to stay safe. The list goes on, but will be different for every person, depending on comfort levels and the experience sought.

With state parks, addressing this step might look like identifying who their first-time campers are and giving them extra attention, McCormack said.

“We want them to know we’re excited to have them here, and ask, ‘What can we help you with? What are your questions? Here’s how things work around here,’” he said.

Introducing new families to camping is something that could translate to another issue the service wants to address: diversity among park staff. Right now, the department’s full staff is 89 percent White.

They’ve made efforts to recruit at historically Black colleges and universities, but that hasn’t led to much progress, McCormack said.

Improving diversity among people who use state parks and campgrounds could help diversify the population of South Carolinians who grow up with an interest in becoming park rangers. In turn, having a more diverse staff can help in making more people feel like state parks are a place for them.

INVITE FOLKS TO CAMP

“People always ask me, ‘Earl, I like what you’re doing. What can I do?’ I say, ‘Invite a Black friend camping,’” Hunter said.

That’s how Hunter tried backpacking for the first time; a friend invited him. It’s also something he does on a regular basis with Black Folks Camp Too.

Joyce Myrick, a retired South Carolina state trooper and first-time camper, was an invitee to one of Hunter’s camping trips this year. She, along with several friends who came out for the weekend, were a little reluctant.

“We were all apprehensive about going,” she said. “I think we all had some preconceived notions.”

But many of the concerns she’d had about their weekend quickly dissolved. They stayed in RVs, not tents, and made vegetable pasta over the fire, an important upgrade, in her opinion, over the hot dogs she had assumed they would have to eat.

Myrick tried s’mores for the first time - it turns out she’s not a fan - and spent hours laughing with the other campers around the fire.

And one part of the trip turned out to feel very familiar. A ranger led them on a nighttime hike. They didn’t take flashlights, so it took some time for their eyes to adjust, but they were able to stargaze, something she grew up doing at her grandmother’s house in rural Barnwell County.

Her grandmother’s house is so deep in the woods that staying there was kind of like camping, though she might have never thought about it that way before, she said.

“The weekend ended too quickly,” she said.

Now, Myrick and her friends are trying to plan another camping trip.

Hunter said people who misunderstand his business are often overlooking a word in its title: “Too.” He isn’t saying Black people don’t camp; they do, and so do people of all races and backgrounds.

But, he challenges, people should accept that there are disparities, and it’s up to people who are comfortable in these spaces to invite other people in.

The more South Carolina campgrounds match its demographics, the better, in Hunter’s view.

“We don’t want to have a segregated outdoors,” Hunter said. “I want to get everybody around the campfire.”

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