Isaiah Scott

Isaiah Scott can’t pinpoint exactly when he first became enamored with nature. He grew up in the Savannah area and spent plenty of time outside and playing in the backyard. Like most kids, he was really into nature books, especially ones about dinosaurs. But he does recall when he first became interested in birds.

The family was taking his older brother to visit Cornell and Scott saw a brochure for their Lab of Ornithology. He insisted they visit and it was transformative for him. “I got my first pair of binoculars from their gift shop. I had the best time birding that day.” He was 13. Now with a successful bird art business and sponsored deals, he’s set to head off to Cornell himself in the fall.


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“Birding helped me find my identity,” Scott says. “I found a fiery passion.” Yet Scott was keenly aware that he wasn’t your typical birder – he was barely in high school and he was a young Black man. “At first, it didn’t feel normal for Black youth, but then I realized it made me feel unique and I wanted to be a leader in the field. And when I learned about Dr. J. Drew Lanham, that inspired me to keep going.” 

Scott found a community of birders online and connected with enthusiasts from around the world. They traded photos of rare birds and tips for finding unusual species. They also created a network of support and encouraged one another. If Scott started out with the sense he was alone in his interest, those days are over. “The outdoors belong to everyone,” he says. “There’s a whole movement and I’m almost overwhelmed.”

He has also turned his love of birds into a bit of a cottage industry. A self-taught artist, he paints realistic images onto leather bags and notecard sets. He even sold one to his hero Dr. Lanham. “I was just drawing in class one day and a teacher said I should try a wood duck. That was when people saw what I could do.”


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Scott is the 2021 recipient of the Eckelberry Fellowship from Drexel University, a project fund that will allow him to further research the Gullah-Geechee connection to the land. His aim is to publish a birding field guide using Gullah-Geechee language, terms, and knowledge. He cites the example of the bobolinks which would stop to feed on plantations, being known as ‘rice birds’ to the enslaved people. “I also want to visit Barbados and track the movement of the enslaved people and see how they connected nature in these areas.” The grant will be administered by Ogeechee Aubudon

As he gets ready to head up to Ithaca, he’s decided to major in environment and sustainability. It’s my lifestyle and I always have the mindset to conserve and protect the environment.” And, of course, he’ll spend plenty of time at the Ornithology lab.

This is the third in a series of posts about Black environmentalists. Read the stories of  the Colonel Charles Young, Gullah-Geechee Heritage Corridor, and Dr. Sue Ebanks.

Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor

Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor

“Little did I know that my work in providing clean water and a safe environment for Gullah people would lead to a passion for preserving the lifestyle of people in their natural surroundings to thrive in a ‘green’ way that many are striving to do today.” Emory Campbell

The Gullah-Geechee people are the descendants of West and Central Africans who were enslaved and brought to the mid and southern Atlantic states, specifically to grow rice, indigo, and cotton on coastal plantations. Because these plantations were relatively isolated – many of them were on barrier islands – the enslaved people managed to keep many of their customs and traditions alive. They also developed a new language, Gullah, a creole language spoken nowhere else in the world.

In 2006, a nearly 500-mile length of land was designated the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor by an act of Congress. The area is unique in that it doesn’t consist of a singular monument or site. Instead, it is made up of a collective of national sites, local museums, community organizations, and individual historians working to preserve and highlight the cultural heritage of the corridor.

Pin Point Heritage Museum. Image:

Part of that work includes understanding the sustainable environmental practices used by the Gullah-Geechee people. The Pin Point Heritage Museum documents the crab and oyster fishing business founded by freed slaves. The A.S. Varn & Son Oyster and Crab Factory employed dozens of Pin Point residents during its six decades in operation. This included the important work of monitoring the health of oyster beds, and picking crab with the tides and seasons.

“Being interested in the Gullah Geechee (community) and working as a proponent for preserving that culture doesn’t have to sound aberrant for a marine scientist. There are human dimensions to many science questions in our community, and one of those dimensions is how do communities of low-lying areas respond to sea-level rise and what is their coastal resilience to the implications of climate change. How are coastal communities dependent upon fish and fisheries and healthy habitats?” Dionne Hoskins-Brown, Ph.D.

Another important Gullah-Geechee location in the Ogeechee watershed is Ossabaw Island. Initially set aside for Creek natives by English colonists, the island was a managed plantation with enslaved laborers by 1763. By the early 1800s it was a highly profitable Sea Island cotton plantation. Once freed, many left Ossabaw to join other Gullah-Geechee communities, including those Pin Point. The descendants maintained many of the cultural aspects of their forbearers, keeping the Gullah-Geechee traditions alive. 

Many were involved in the creation of the corridor. Two champions with local ties are Emory Campbell and Dionne Hoskins-Brown, Ph.D.

Emory Campbell. Image: SC Sea Grant

Campbell grew up in a Gullah-Geechee community  on Hilton Head Island (before there was a bridge connecting it to the mainland. He earned his bachelor’s degree in biology at Savannah State. His career in public health took him to New England but he always felt the pull to return and protect his home from the overdevelopment. He was named Chairman of the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor in 2008.

Dionne Hoskins-Brown, Ph.D. Image: SSU

Hoskins-Brown serves as the Director of NOAA Programs at Savannah State University. She established the African American Fishermen Oral History Project to capture the experiences of Gullah-Geechee families on the Georgia coast through the Voices from the Fisheries database. She is the current chair of the Gullah-Geechee Cultural Heritage Corridor.

This is the second in a series of posts about Black environmentalists.Read the stories of  the Colonel Charles Young, Isaiah Scott, and Dr. Sue Ebanks.

Colonel Charles Young

Charles Young (1864 – 1922)

Charles Young in full dress uniform prior to receiving the NAACP Spingarn Medal in 1916. National Afro-American Museum and Cultural Center, Wilberforce, Ohio.

Born to enslaved parents, became just the third African-American commissioned officer of West Point when he graduated in 1889. As a Second Lieutenant, he was sent to posts in Nebraska and Utah before retaining a position at Wilberforce University in 1894. There he taught military science and he launched the university marching band. He was also professor to W.E.B. Dubois and the two remained lifelong friends. 

During the Spanish American War, now Major Young was given command of an Ohio regiment of Buffalo Soldiers. In 1903, with the rank of Captain, Charles Young was given orders to take his troops to the newly designated Sequoia National Park.

“Indeed, a journey through this park and the Sierra Forest Reserve to the Mount Whitney country will convince even the least thoughtful man of the needfulness of preserving these mountains just as they are, with their clothing of trees, shrubs, rocks, and vines, and of their importance to the valleys below as reservoirs for storage of water for agricultural and domestic purposes. In this, lies the necessity of forest preservation.”

-Captain Charles Young in Report of the Acting Superintendent of Sequoia and General Grant National Parks, California, October 15, 1903

They were tasked with creating safe roads and trails throughout the park. This Young’s troops did, along with the help of civilian workforce, and they were far more successfully than previous teams had. By the end of the summer, tourists could visit the sequoia groves and see  the famous Moro Rock.

Young, seated center, with the 1903 road construction crew. NPS Photo

For his successful efforts, Young was named Acting Superintendent of Sequoia National Park, the first African-American to retain the title. His final report to the Secretary of the Interior included a plea to the government to purchase surrounding private lands. He had even laid the groundwork by convincing neighboring landowners to sell their property into the protection of the national park system.

Young would shortly be sent to posts in the Caribbean and Africa, earning high praises from President Theodore Roosevelt and the U.S. State Department. After his untimely death in 1922, Colonel Charles Young was buried with full honors and a funeral service at Arlington National Cemetery. 

Even throughout a storied and wide-ranging military career, Young was inspired to protect nature for future generations and paved the way for environmental tourism. 

This is the first in a series of posts about Black environmentalists. Read the stories of  the Gullah-Geechee Heritage Corridor, Isaiah Scott, and Dr. Sue Ebanks.