May 2, 2023

The Weight of History

The Appalachian Trail is a much more diverse place in 2023 than it was as recently as 20 years ago. But if you spend much time on the trail, you know it’s still a pretty white place. There are many stories about the challenges faced by members of...

The Appalachian Trail is a much more diverse place in 2023 than it was as recently as 20 years ago. But if you spend much time on the trail, you know it’s still a pretty white place. There are many stories about the challenges faced by members of marginalized communities who hike the AT, and we need a lot more research to better understand how the history of the trail and the history of race are closely interwoven. 

On today’s episode, attorney Krystal Williams of Maine and historian Phoebe Young of the University of Colorado-Boulder help us explore specifically how the history of the AT crosses paths with African American history, in ways you might not expect. 

Further Reading: 

Mills Kelly, “The A.T. and Race” AT Journeys, February 2021:

Megan Rosenbloom, Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin (New York: MacMillian, 2020).

Noelle Smith, “How Perceived Racial Differences Created a Crisis in Black Women’s Healthcare,” Nursing Clio, March 31, 2020, 

Harriet Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Random House, 2008).

Phoebe S. K. Young, Camping Grounds: Public Nature in American Life from the Civil War to the Occupy Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).


The Green Tunnel Podcast
Season 2: Episode 14

"The Weight of History" 


KRYSTAL WILLIAMS: even though I'm mindful of my race and ethnicity, like when you're in the middle of the woods, and your feet are hurting, and you're thinking about food, and you're like, where's the next privy? Or do I need to go dig a hole, like when all of these things are going through your mind? Like the last thing you think of is your race, but then when someone sees you, their reaction to you reminds you like, Oh, I'm still not well represented in this space. I'm still a surprise, when people come across me. And that just adds another layer of nuance and complexity to the trail experience, for sure.

MILLS KELLY: Welcome to The Green Tunnel, a podcast on the history of the Appalachian Trail. My name is Mills Kelly, and I’m your host. 

KELLY: That was Krystal Williams, an attorney in Maine, who completed a thru hike of the AT in 2011. We’re going to hear a lot from Krystal in today’s episode as she discusses her experiences as a person of color on the AT.

KELLY: Throughout this season of The Green Tunnel, we have been asking the question, Who is the trail for? If you look closely at the history of the AT, it becomes clear right away that until pretty recently, the Appalachian Trail has been a space for white hikers, even though it passes through or near communities of color. 

KELLY: The Appalachian Trail is a much more diverse place in 2023 than it was as recently as 20 years ago. But if you spend much time on the trail, you know it’s still a pretty white place. There are many stories about the challenges faced by members of marginalized communities who hike the AT, and we need a lot more research to better understand how the history of the trail and the history of race are closely interwoven.  

KELLY: On today’s episode, we are going to explore specifically how the history of the AT crosses paths with African American history, in ways you might not expect.  

KELLY: Some of the content in today’s episode may be difficult for some listeners to hear.

KELLY: When the Appalachian Trail project began in 1925, almost half of the trail’s route passed through Virginia, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Georgia, where segregation was legal. And all but one of the southern trail clubs that sprang up to help build the trail in those early decades, were either formally segregated, or practically segregated. Things were not much better north of the Potomac River. Although the northern trail clubs weren’t legally segregated, they often felt just as unfriendly to anyone who wasn’t white.

KELLY: I have searched the archives of the various organizations responsible for the creation of the Appalachian Trail for evidence of any sort of policy, or rule, or guideline, or even discussion of what it meant for the trail to pass through segregated states. Or what the impact of the Civil Rights Act might be on the volunteer clubs who care for the trail. And here’s what I found. 

KELLY: Nothing.

KELLY: Okay, not exactly nothing. I did find one letter in the archives of the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club, from a club member in 1960, complaining about the club’s whites-only policy. And a response from the club president, who regretted that there was such a policy. So, not nothing, but almost nothing.

KELLY: It’s as though the trail clubs, and the ATC, existed in a fantasy race-free zone where the racial divisions tearing the country apart in the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, were happening in an entirely different country.

KELLY: The National Park Service was no better, and maybe even a little bit worse, when it came to dealing with the issue of race in the two national parks that the trail passed through – the Great Smoky Mountains National Park and Shenandoah National Park.

PHOEBE YOUNG: The National Park Service, like most federal agencies, at this time was officially non-segregationist, it accommodated all travelers. But unofficially, it had a policy of dissuasion for Black and other nonwhite visitors.

KELLY: That’s Phoebe Young, a Professor of History at the University of Colorado Boulder, and the author of the book, Camping Grounds: Public Nature and American Life from the Civil War to the Occupy Movement. What Phoebe found in her research was that the superintendents of various national parks were very uncomfortable with the presence of Black visitors.

YOUNG: Essentially they voiced discomfort with their presence. They worried that some of the rangers or other concessionaires in national parks, that the staff were largely white, and that they might object to serving Black visitors, as customers in that sense. The resolution of this at the conference was an unofficial policy of trying to discourage Black travelers, as they said, Well, we cannot openly discriminate against Black travelers, they should be told that the parks have no facilities for taking care of them. And the context for this is important, because this is the 1920s when otherwise, the parks were advertising themselves, in every corner of the nation as places to go and come visit your parks. But these were public spaces for all. But behind the scenes, they were doing exactly the opposite for Black communities, suggesting that they not come.

KELLY: In the Jim Crow South, the establishment of Shenandoah and Great Smoky Mountains National Parks forced federal, state, and local governments to strike an unwritten accord, on how to handle potential Black visitors in the 1930s

KELLY: And while the AT didn’t officially become part of the National Park Service until the late 1960s, strategies adopted by the park service and its partners certainly shaped how trail clubs approached the question of membership. 

YOUNG: The Shenandoah and the Great Smoky Mountains National Parks were the first national parks to open in the Jim Crow South. The Park Service and President Franklin Roosevelt had to tiptoe around how to deal with this question of a Jim Crow state and a federal park within it. The local population was concerned that the new facilities that were being built would not adhere to Jim Crow. And so there is a kind of delicate, mostly private negotiation, to which we only have scraps of evidence in the archive about this, to suggest that the National Park Service decided to bow to local custom, that they didn't want to set up what they called a jurisdictional Island, meaning a non segregated space surrounded by segregation by law in these states that it would create too much dissonance for the inhabitants, 

KELLY: Some trail clubs embraced segregation more openly. Until the early 1960s, membership in the Smoky Mountains Hiking Club was open to “any reputable White person” as their membership handbook said. 

KELLY: Other clubs were more in line with the practices of the National Park Service. They restricted membership by imposing requirements that forced potential members to be nominated by at least two club members, and to take part in several activities before being eligible to join. This made it easy for club members to make sure potential members were white. These sorts of restrictive membership practices were common from one end of the trail to the other.

KELLY: You can see the impact of these requirements in the annual meeting photographs of the various trail clubs. Until the 1980s, almost every face you see in those photographs was white.

KELLY: The Appalachian Trail Conservancy blazed a similar trail. The ATC used to hold its annual meetings at segregated resorts in southern states on a rotating basis. This meant that any non-white trail club member would not be welcome to stay at the resort where the annual meeting was being held, and might not be allowed into the facility at all. 

KELLY: The possibility of racial violence along the trail was a real thing. I spend a lot of time these days reading old shelter registers. In 1981, someone at what is now the Tray Mountain Shelter wrote in the register, in big bold letters, that “All black people will die here!” But the author didn’t use the term Black people. I think you can imagine what they did use.

KELLY: That entry is problematic in two ways – first there was the threat against Black people. Second, none of the hikers who wrote in the log after that felt compelled to scratch it out or comment on it. I wish I could say that shelter register entries like that one were exceptional.

KELLY:  Instead, shelter registers from up and down the trail include similar threats, and reminders of the Confederacy and the Lost Cause narrative, like drawings of the Confederate battle flag. Even today, it’s not uncommon for hikers of color to see Confederate flags fluttering from poles, in front of the only resupply store in some of the towns they visit during their hikes. 

KELLY: Sometimes direct threats are written in the logs or spray painted on bridges or signs along the trail. These kinds of threats and imagery have been and continue to be part of the cultural landscape of the AT.

KELLY: It wasn’t until 1987 that a Black hiker, Lori “Tenderfoot” Pierce, completed a thru hike of the AT. And it took almost another decade before the first Black man, Robert Taylor, completed an AT thru hike. But that didn’t mean that Black Americans didn’t want to spend time outdoors.

YOUNG: Black Americans were just as interested in outdoor recreation as white Americans. My research really only scratched the surface. What I did was look in the largest national Black newspaper, the Chicago Defender at the time, to see if there were articles about various forms of recreate outdoor recreation, camping included, but not exclusively, because if you looked at any local newspaper in the 1910s and 20s, you would find articles about, you know, from the society pages of you know, people going off on these camping excursions to ads for outdoor gear, just stories about parks that were available. And so I found similar sets of discourse in the Chicago Defender at the same time, camping and outdoor recreation being promoted for health, for sort of a family getaway, to see the sights to get back to nature. And so you see this in kind of a series of different articles and letters to the editor, talking about the benefits of outdoor recreation

YOUNG: But if you dug a little bit deeper, you could see some cautions that we did not see in other newspapers around how to camp around what it meant to camp. So for example, in the sets of issues that I looked at where outdoor recreation was being promoted, you also saw references to African Americans traveling who were refused accommodations in any number of towns. And so for example, one from Carbondale, Pennsylvania, said, You know, if you're going to go to Carbondale, Pennsylvania, you better bring your camping gear, because there are no hotels or inns that will accept Black travelers. So in that way, it was used kind of sardonically as a joke, but a serious one in the sense that they weren't really seeking camping as an experience of nature, but that it was something that they might have to resort to, if they were refused indoor accommodations. 

WILLIAMS: it wasn't part of our culture, I think that was in part informed by what the significance of the woods in the Black community. Whereas during slavery, it was an opportunity for escape. As we move through history and lived under Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, lynching, being in the woods as a Black person became a place where you met death. And so I think that has become part of what was passed down. 

KELLY: In 2011, Krystal Williams followed her life’s dream and thru hiked the Appalachian Trail from Georgia to Maine. She did it as a Black woman hiking alone. 

WILLIAMS: So when I was at a point in my life, where I was really questioning my life choices, I was working at a Fortune 100 company and a job that was really not feeding my soul. You know, classic corporate burnout. The one dream I had from when I was 19 years old, that I had not yet given myself permission to explore was hiking the Appalachian Trail. And growing up in North Carolina, being in the outdoors, hiking was not something that was part of my family's culture, like many Black families. It was just not something I ever thought about. I didn't even really know that was a thing. But my first year at Williams College I met a through hiker, and I don't remember their trail name. I don't really even remember their features. I just remember it was a white male, youngish. My memory of that of my interaction with this person has that like hazy glow of like time. But I just remember the way he talked about the trail, the resonance of that, what it evoked in me, was just so magical and beautiful. 

KELLY: Although Krystal became enamored with the idea of hiking the AT, as she explained, the woods can take on a different meaning for Black Americans, something white Americans might not fully realize. Phoebe’s research helps us understand why. 

YOUNG: But there's a much deeper history. To this and resorting to camping outside for functional reasons was not something that many Black Americans wanted to contemplate. Plenty of evidence suggests that African Americans associated sleeping outside in kind of uncontrolled spaces with threatening, unfavorable experiences. The lack of reliable accommodations at ends or hotels, or even tourist camps, or cabin courts and of early motel to style accommodations, whose operators often refuse to accommodate African Americans made long distance travel a kind of risky proposition. Failing to find lodgings might mean driving all night, sleeping in their cars, or in a field or a barn, all of which could leave them quite vulnerable to being harassed by local sheriffs being thrown out from what were called sundown towns, where the law held that African Americans could not be in the city after sundown, or accosted by members of the clan, which was experiencing a national resurgence in popularity in the 1920s. And all of this rested on yet an even longer history. Were in the post-Civil War era, freed people so African Americans recently freed from being enslaved. If they were sleeping outside, they could be criminalized as vagrants wherever they set up camp,at the same time when sort of white travelers basically assumed they could had permission to camp on private or public land. And so these kinds of assumptions about who belonged and outdoor spaces often shaped how many outdoor park rangers or law enforcement or camp managers would have looked at back presence in this landscape. And so in many ways, African Americans did not feel either welcome, or safe in many of these spaces that were very much surveilled by white expectations in white law enforcement

KELLY: Lots of hikers, whether they are thru hikers, day hikers, or weekenders, go into the forest afraid. After all, most of us live a long way from the nearest forest or mountain, so that kind of wildness is outside of our normal experience. But if you are a hiker of color, there is an added layer of worry.

WILLIAMS: I was very conscious of being a Black woman. When I graduated from college, I wanted to hike the trail. I talked to my father, who was a police officer in you know, in Carrboro, North Carolina, and he was like, Oh, well, you know, women get raped and killed on the trail. And, and so like, that was I was like, Okay, I'm not doing the trail. So it took me another, you know, 19 years before I kind of gathered up the fortitude, but going to the trail, I was really conscious of like those safety concerns,  being a woman, but being a woman of color.

KELLY: Krystal’s story tells us a lot about how much the trail has changed since the 1930s and how much it hasn’t. There is a lot in the intertwined history of the AT and race that remains untold and, in some cases, avoided altogether. 

HAYLEY MADL: At R2 Studios we’re on a mission to democratize history through podcasting, but making our shows for you requires a lot of investment. For every minute you hear, our team has spent countless hours researching in the archives, interviewing guests, writing scripts, and editing audio. Invest in us today, so you can help us make the best history podcasts out there. Head to R2 Studios dot org and click on "Support Us" to find out how. Thanks for listening. 

KELLY: Sometimes when you’re researching in an archive, you find something you can’t unknow. No matter how hard you might try. 

KELLY: This happened to me in the fall of 2019, when I was working in the archives of the ATC, outside of Harpers Ferry, West Virginia. That particular day, I asked the Conservancy’s long-time archivist and publicist, Brian King, why he thought I couldn’t find any evidence in the archives discussing the impact of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 on the trail supporting organizations. 

KELLY: Brian said that, in his opinion, it was because the leaders of the AT community in those days wanted to pretend that the trail existed outside of the problems of American society, and so, they did their best to ignore things like the struggle for civil rights. 

KELLY: Then he told me I should look at a folder back in the storage room labeled, “Interview with Paul Fink.”

KELLY: Paul Fink was one of the founding members of the ATC way back in 1925. He was the person responsible for convincing the ATC leadership to route the trail through the Smoky Mountains, rather than up and over Mount Mitchell in North Carolina. He is listed on the website of the Great Smoky Mountains National Park as one of the notable contributors to founding the park and he is a member of the Appalachian Trail Museum’s Hall of Fame

KELLY: In the late 1970s, two members of the Potomac Appalachian Trail Club – Ed Garvey and Ed Hanlon – decided to interview Fink for the Appalachian Trailway News. He was the last surviving founder of the AT, and they thought it would be interesting to hear his stories about the early days of the trail. 

KELLY: Hanlon was a senior official at the Federal Aviation Administration and Garvey had just retired from a very senior position at the National Science Foundation. Garvey had also recently published the first book detailing a successful thru hike and wanted to make sure Fink got his proper due.

KELLY: Garvey and Hanlon went to visit Fink at his home in the beautiful little town of Jonesboro, Tennessee. Fink told them many stories from his life, especially his experiences as a backpacker in the Smokys. Garvey and Hanlon then wrote up a draft of the story and sent it to Fink to get his feedback.

KELLY: In that archive folder, I found the draft of that article. I also found an audio tape of the conversation they had with Fink when they went back to Tennessee the following year to get his take on what they’d written.

KELLY: Their draft read like a standard alumni magazine puff story about “our oldest living alum”. There were stories about Fink as a child stealing his grandfather’s tobacco and stories about his experiences hiking. 

KELLY: But then, on the last page, Garvey and Hanlon wrote the following paragraph:

Paul had been tanning animals such as fox, possum, etc., for more than 40 years. He always wondered what kind of leather human skin would make -- so one time in came a nigger skin which he took downstairs and tanned. He took us downstairs and showed it to us.

KELLY: When I read that, I just sat there staring at the page. 

KELLY: I was amazed that in 1979, two well-educated men from the Washington, D.C. area could have written something like that, into an otherwise puff piece about an old hiker. It was just astounding to me that they could so casually throw in an act of total barbarity, as though it was just one more amusing story about old Paul.

KELLY: I listened to the tape of their second interview, also recorded in 1979. I heard Fink express reservations about that particular paragraph. I think it’s important to hear his interactions with Garvey and Hanlon on this point. You’ll hear Fink first, followed by Garvey.

PAUL FINK: One other little thing in there, just a small thing, a very small thing…. [cross talk] What I thought too, Ed, was that I thought, like I explained in my letter to you, is that in the interest of, well, one thing and another, that I might leave out that little, uh, that item about the piece of leather I had around here.

ED GARVEY: Okay. We can. Okay, cause there’s probably more in here than we can use anyway. And so that’s a part we can leave out.

FINK: The idea that is that there is just several people when they see that leather they begin to get queasy and so on. They look at me and one of’m says, ‘You must have been sort of barbarian.” I said, ‘You’re durn tootin, but there’s no use advertising it.’ And all like that. And some people might wonder if a person that was a semi- or more barbarian had anything to do with organizing this trail. I don’t want to even write over it.

GARVEY: Yeah. Okay. It’s out. I just took it out. It’s gone. So we’ll leave that out. But I left in the one about the tobacco. It’s good. Because every kid’s gone through it. [Chuckles in background]

KELLY: At that moment, I was almost as disgusted by the chuckling of Garvey and Hanlon as I was at Fink’s ghoulishness. At least he had enough sense to know better than to include something like that in their story. Garvey and Hanlon clearly didn’t have that same level of awareness. I was astounded by their casual racism.

KELLY: That day in the archive I resolved that I would learn the entire story of what Paul Fink had done and Garvey and Hanlon’s attitude toward that barbarism.

KELLY: I traveled to the archives in Knoxville that hold Fink’s personal notebooks. I went to Jonesboro, and read through his personal papers held by the local historical society. 

KELLY: I sat on the wall opposite of the house Fink built and was living in when that first interview occurred. 

KELLY: I talked to every archive and museum director in Tennessee and North Carolina who might know something, anything about this story. I interviewed one of Ed Garvey’s children. I tried to track down Fink’s and Hanlon’s descendants. 

KELLY: And I dug and dug through the archives of the ATC.

KELLY: At almost every turn, I hit a dead end. I did learn from a note scrawled in the margins of one of the article’s drafts, that the person’s skin came to Fink from a medical student who he knew.

KELLY: But I never learned who the skin belonged to, or how this medical student took it from somewhere and gave it to Fink. I also don’t know when Fink acquired it. We may never know. While the story is horrific, in some ways, it isn’t surprising. 

KELLY: Fink’s life spanned from the early 1890s to the early 1980s, a century that witnessed repeated acts of violence against Black bodies, including sterilization of Black women during the American eugenics movement, medical experimentation on Black men at the Tuskegee Institute, lynchings, and other forms of mob violence. 

KELLY: We may never learn when Fink came into possession of the person’s skin. It’s also unlikely we’ll ever know the name of the person it belonged to, but as historians, we have an obligation to keep searching for answers. 

KELLY: History is filled with things we’d rather not know, about the people, places, or things we love. The Appalachian Trail is no different. We have to confront the fact that some of the leaders of the trail project, even leaders we’ve revered, contributed to the racist history of the trail. And this includes Paul Fink and Ed Garvey who both are in the AT Museum’s Hall of Fame. 

KELLY: But progress is happening. For one thing, the ATC and the trail clubs are working hard to make the AT a much more inclusive place.

KELLY: And, the notion that “Black people don’t hike” is one that a number of organizations like Outdoor Afro have worked hard to combat, even though it remains deeply intertwined in the way many people along the trail think of who hikes, and who doesn’t. During her hike, Krystal Williams encountered a little bit of everything along the way.  

WILLIAMS: Throughout my experience, I had the full spectrum of responses. For the most part, people were excited to see a Black woman almost awkwardly, for lack of a better word. For then, I think one experience I remember was, you know, north of Damascus, there's the Captain's House. And he was so so excited to see me because there had been another Black hiker, Cayenne, who was about two weeks ahead of me. And so for him to see two Black women hiking the trail by themselves, he was just like, almost bowled over. He was like, didn't know what to do with himself. And so those were often the types of experiences where people who were so who appreciated the additional challenge and wanted to support kind of the courage of me being out there by myself as a Black woman hiking, they really wanted to see me succeed.

KELLY: As Krystal hiked, she fell in love with the natural world around her and really gave herself to the trail. 

WILLIAMS: I just gave myself over completely to the experience, I allowed myself to be shaped by the trail, by the community that I encountered, and that I became close friends with. I just approached it with such humility. And I remember my early days on the trail where I was literally scared of every noise I heard, I was so stereotypical. It's almost embarrassing. But then probably about three or four weeks, and I started to really appreciate what it meant to live in a very close and symbiotic relationship with the natural world. I became much more attuned to the shifting of the forest and how alive the forest was, even when it was before the budding of spring. And so hearing, this sounds so mystical, and I fell in love with that process of hearing the earth groan. And watching it wake up. There's a reason why I think people start in the south, because you walk with spring. And so it was, it's just really beautiful, to see the natural world work, wake up in that way. And that waking up, also paralleled my own kind of shedding of all of the layers of all of the fears that I had going into, the woods.

KELLY: But for Black Americans, there is always another layer. Near the midpoint of her hike, Krystal learned that her grandmother had passed and as she hiked north out of Shenandoah National Park, her grief added to the weight she was carrying on her back.

WILLIAMS: My grandmother was one of those women, she's just so formidable, and she was like a little slip of a woman. And she spent her whole life either cleaning houses or working in department stores. And what I was told was that she was one of the saleswomen at Macy's, that helped integrate the sales floor. And so as I was, you know, with her death in the celebration of her life, so like, present in my mind, as I was walking into Harpers Ferry, it just really struck me that I was in the bright light of day, walking through woods, that people who look like me, and maybe even some of my ancestors and relatives had to traverse that same terrain, in the dead of night, to escape the horrific conditions of slavery. I broke out into tears, it was this weird combination of the weight of history, and the profound freedom of the privilege I was experiencing, in that moment of full recognition that so many things went right in my life to give me that window to step away from a full time job to purchase the gear that I needed to be able to walk unfettered, through the woods in the bright light of day and that still stays with me. Especially the more I learn about the history of our country, and the history, particularly around that area of the trail there are so many Civil War sites. And so that was also something that I was conscious of and I didn't know at the time, but I learned later was that Harpers Ferry was the site of a failed slave rebellion. And so all of those things, particularly as a Black hiker, knowing the history of our nation and what happened on the same soil that I was now walking across, with all this really expensive gear on my back, that's, that's a lot to hold. That's a lot to hold.

KELLY: The trail teaches hikers many lessons, about nature, about persistence, about joy, about sadness, about how to overcome doubt, and about being accepting of difference. For Krystal, many of those lessons have informed her current practice.

WILLIAMS: I started my own law firm, Providential Group. And it really is a platform for me to bring my legal education and experience and my business education and experience together to really look at strategically solving or addressing some of the major gaps that exist in our society today, and really, with the focus on racial equity. Part of what I brought with me from the trail is, at the beginning of my journey on Springer Mountain, where I let go of this goal of getting to Katahdin and focused on the process. So that kind of insight and learning, I definitely bring with me, in my current work, because holding the goal of racial unity, and racial equity is very heavy. But I can focus on what's the project in front of me, and what are some meaningful goals in that project. I think also, more practically, and this is something that I've done throughout my whole life, I've always been very mindful of representation and seeing attainable standards of excellence and success. In my current role, I try to model that for the broader community. Because living here in Maine, there's this myth that there are no, you know, BIPOC folks or Black folks in Maine, and there's actually quite a thriving community. But we're often not very visible. And so while I typically like to fly under the radar, here, I'm accepting a measure of visibility, because I understand the importance of having someone to look up to and say, and seeing yourself in a professional way. 

WILLIAMS: And I'm wondering, particularly as we wrestle with the future of the trail, because let's be honest,  if the trail does not actively if the trail community does not actively embrace diversity, the future of the trail really will be at stake. And so it really is incumbent on the different clubs to not just say they want to be more diverse, and to say, well, if someone comes to our door will open it, but how do they actually open the door, go out into the community, and build those relationships, and invite not just Black people, but Latin X people, new Americans into that space, and into a enjoyable relationship with the trail in the woods, because it's an amazing, amazing resource. And how do we have those complex conversations about the problematic aspects of some people who did amazing things for the trail, but were not so stellar in other parts of their lives? I think is a question not just for the trail, but for our nation as well, which is, we can't change the past, we can't change the fact that millions of Africans were enslaved, and that enslavement lasted for several generations. And after that enslavement there were explicit laws on the books that allowed the continued dehumanization, and killing of people of color. Black people specifically, but also we have a problematic history with Asian Americans. There is no racial minority or ethnic group that have not had a problematic pass with the white majority. And we haven't even touched on the indigenous history. Right. So how do we have honest conversations about the complexity of our history without denying that progress has been made almost in spite of ourselves? And how do we find that path of redemption forward? Not just for individuals who may have contributed to beautiful things like the Appalachian Trail, which continue to provide enjoyment for many people. But how do we ask that question and wrestle with a path to an answer for our nation?

[Nature Sounds]

KELLY: The Green Tunnel is a production of R2 Studios, part of the Roy Rosenzweig Center for History and New Media at George Mason University.

KELLY: Today's episode was produced by me, Mills Kelly and The Green Tunnels’ executive producers, Jeanette Patrick and Jim Ambuske. 

KELLY: Our original music is performed by Scott Miller of Swope, Virginia and Andrew Small and Ashley Watkins of Floyd, Virginia. Additional music is provided by

KELLY: Thanks to Phoebe Young for her insights about the camping experiences of Black Americans. And thank you to Megan Rosenbloom who, along with her book Dark Archives, helped us think through this episode. 

KELLY: Above all, we owe a special thank you to Krystal Williams for sharing her story and for her help in developing this episode. 

KELLY: Thanks so much for listening, and we'll see you back here soon.


Mills Kelly, “The A.T. and Race” AT Journeys, February 2021:

Megan Rosenbloom, Dark Archives: A Librarian’s Investigation into the Science and History of Books Bound in Human Skin (New York: MacMillian, 2020).

Noelle Smith, “How Perceived Racial Differences Created a Crisis in Black Women’s Healthcare,” Nursing Clio, March 31, 2020, 

Harriet Washington, Medical Apartheid: The Dark History of Medical Experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial Times to the Present (New York: Random House, 2008).

Phoebe S. K. Young, Camping Grounds: Public Nature in American Life from the Civil War to the Occupy Movement (New York: Oxford University Press, 2021).


Krystal Williams

Krystal Williams, better known as Bumblebee, is a member of the AT NoBo Class of '11. When she is not dreaming of the Trail (or lamenting the loss of her pinky toenail which never grew back after her hike), she is busy as the founding manager of Providentia Group, a legal and business advisory firm focused on achieving economic dignity for all. In 2020 she also founded the Alpha Legal Foundation, a non-profit organization with a mission to diversify Maine’s legal profession.

Krystal is a Returned Peace Corps Volunteer and holds a J.D. from the University of Maine School of Law, an MBA from the Amos Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth, and BAs in Mathematics and Psychology from Williams College.

Phoebe Young

Phoebe Young is Professor of History at the University of Colorado Boulder where she teaches and writes about the environmental and cultural history of the United States and the American West. Young received her B.A. from Bryn Mawr College and her Ph.D. from the University of California, San Diego. Her most recent book, Camping Grounds: Public Nature in America from the Civil War to Occupy (Oxford University Press, 2021), traces the hidden history of camping and the outdoors in American life that connects a familiar recreational pastime to camps for functional needs and political purposes. Camping Grounds was reviewed in The New Yorker in April 2022 and won the 2022 Norris and Carol Hundley Award from the Pacific Coast Branch of the American Historical Association.