The Sierra Club wants the National Park Service to change the name of LeConte Memorial Lodge in the Yosemite Valley after finding out the man it is named after was a white supremacist and racist.
Joseph LeConte was a well-known scientist, professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and founding member of the Sierra Club in 1892. He died in 1901 during a Sierra Club trip to Yosemite. Club volunteers built the lodge in his honor two years later.
The lodge, which served as the park’s first visitors center, remains a public education center – owned by the park service but still operated by the Sierra Club. It opens every May for seasonal programs on geology, astronomy and other topics.
Sierra Club leaders became alarmed last summer when they learned of LeConte’s history. They learned his racist views were widely published after the Civil War, including in an 1892 book called, “The Race Problem in the South.” They already knew LeConte was born in 1823 in Georgia on a 3,000-acre plantation with 231 slaves.
Sierra Club Deputy Executive Director Bruce Hamilton said he found LeConte’s published writings on race to be offensive and indefensible.
“We knew he was from the South and a former slave owner, but we were unaware until recently that, to his dying day, he was holding white supremacist viewpoints,” Hamilton said.
In late October, Sierra Club President Aaron Mair and Executive Director Michael Brune sent a letter to National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis and Associate Director Stephanie Toothman. Mair and Brune requested that the lodge be renamed the Yosemite Valley Education Center.
Mair and Brune wrote that lodge visitors would be offended to learn about LeConte’s racist views.
“It is especially troubling to have his name associated with a building whose very function is to welcome visitors, and to educate and inspire them,” they wrote. “His name sends a mixed message to all visitors to the lodge.”
Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman said park officials are working with the Sierra Club, but he did not know when they could make a decision. The park is also dealing with controversial plans to rename several historic landmarks as a new concession company takes over.
“We’re committed to having that facility open to the public,” Gediman said. “As far as any name changes, it’s just something we continue to be in discussion about.”
Gediman said LeConte’s contributions to the Sierra Club, science and Yosemite are highlighted at the lodge.
“John Muir did not get along with the American Indians,” Gediman said of the Sierra Club co-founder. “He hated them – but they didn’t talk about that.
“So it’s not like we didn’t know, but I think the best way to say it is the association with the (LeConte) name has been based upon his work in science.”
LeConte’s name is associated with other places, including Mount LeConte, a peak in the Sierra Nevada, LeConte Canyon in the Sequoia-Kings Canyon Wilderness, LeConte Divide in the Sierra National Forest and LeConte Falls in Yosemite National Park. There are also public roads in Berkeley and Los Angeles, college campus buildings in South Carolina and Berkeley, and public schools in California named after him.
But LeConte is different from other prominent leaders in United States history who owned slaves or fought for the Confederacy during the Civil War, Mair and Brune wrote in the letter, because he actively promoted white supremacist philosophy for more than a generation after the end of the war.
The Sierra Club isn’t the only organization to take issue with LeConte. According to The Daily Californian, the University of California, Berkeley’s student newspaper, Berkeley Unified School District officials considered changing the name of LeConte Elementary School in October after residents raised concerns about his history. And in July, The Daily Californian reported that members of the Black Student Union at UC Berkeley called for the university to rename LeConte Hall.
That’s how Sierra Club leaders found out.
“People are starting to discover many racist historic figures,” Hamilton said. “A better understanding of justice, equity and the harm caused by racism, white supremacy and white privilege has required people to rethink these things. We can’t just make excuses. We actually have to try to do things right, so when people of all races come to Yosemite, they aren’t confronted by a monument to a white supremacist.”