Sierra Club calls co-founder “unabashed” racist, now seeks Yosemite lodge name change

Yosemite Valley Credit: Adam Selwood

Yosemite Valley Credit: Adam Selwood


Author: Steven Shaw
Date: 02.19.16

The Sierra Club is asking the National Park Service to change the name of the LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite Valley. In a letter sent to National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis, the Sierra Club writes that Joseph LeConte, the man the lodge is named after and a Sierra Club co-founder, “was an unabashed white supremacist, whose racist views were widely published after the Civil War.”  

The Sierra Club built the structure in 1904 and it has been at its current location since 1912. It operates today at its own expense, which the conservation organization estimates at nearly $100,000 annually. Each year 16,000 visitors to Yosemite stop by the lodge, which now serves as an education center and library. It’s been on the National Register of Historic Places since 1977 and was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1985.

The Sierra Club acknowledges NPS ownership of the property and the fact that any decision in renaming it is ultimately theirs to make. However, the Sierra Club writes “since the initial name of the Lodge was chosen by the Sierra Club, and its construction was privately funded, we believe that the National Park Service should give strong deference to the Sierra Club’s desire to modify that name.” The club’s board of directors voted last October to seek the name change because “it would be an insult to visitors to retain his name in association with an educational center that is supposed to serve as a place to welcome visitors with open doors.”

Le Conte was a Harvard-educated and well-respected geologist who served on the faculties at both the University of South Carolina and University of California, Berkeley. Le Conte’s name is peppered on natural features from coast to coast, including Mount Le Conte in the Sierra Nevada range, Le Conte Glacier in Alaska, Le Conte Canyon in Kings Canyon National Park, Le Conte Divide in the Sierra National Forest, Le Conte Falls in Yosemite National Park and Mount Le Conte in Great Smoky Mountains National Park (note, there is debate as to whether Mount Le Conte is named after Joseph or his less famous brother John Le Conte).

The Sierra Club does not “seek the eradication of every mention of his name from our nation’s public lands but the public is beginning to learn more about Le Conte’s racial politics, and public pressure is mounting to change the name of a number of places that were originally named in his honor.” Said Sierra Club Board President Aaron Mair and Executive Director Michael Brune. The pair notes the Sierra Club is not the group taking issue with the Le Conte Name. The Daily Californian, U.C. Berkeley’s student newspaper reports that a name change was recently recommended for Le Conte Elementary School in the Berkeley school district and the Black Student Union is lobbying to get Le Conte Hall renamed.

The Sierra Club discovered Le Conte’s white supremacist views after these name-changing efforts started gaining public attention. Sierra Club Wild America Campaign Director Dan Chu tells TrailMob they were previously aware that Le Conte was born on a slave-owning plantation in Georgia and was a slave owner himself but that it wasn’t until Le Conte’s past writings surfaced that it became clear that a place dedicated to welcoming and educating visitors of all races should not bear his name.

“30 years after the end of the Civil War, the same year he co-founded the Sierra Club, Le Conte published [The Race Problem in the South], advocating racism and white supremacy.  We believe he used his position to champion and forward these deplorable causes.” Said Dan Chu.  

Here are a few excerpts from the book:

“We have two widely different races in the grade of evolution…”
“As a broad general fact, control of some kind or degree must be in the hands of the superior race.” 

“the Negro by means of slavery has been raised above slavery, it would be a great mistake to suppose that he has yet reached a position of equality with the white race…”

The Sierra Club tells TrailMob that as the public becomes more aware of Le Conte’s past “those who visit the Le Conte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite Valley are more likely to be horrified and offended to learn that this public building is named in honor of Mr. Le Conte.” Furthermore “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. His name sends a mixed message to all visitors to the Lodge.” Said the Sierra Club.

The organization tells us they work with the National Park Service but have not received any formal word as to if and when the name change may occur. Yosemite spokesman Scott Gediman told the Fresno Bee. “We’re committed to having that facility open to the public. As far as any name changes, it’s just something we continue to be in discussion about.”

Gediman went on to note LeConte’s contributions to the Sierra Club, science and Yosemite are featured at the lodge. “I think the best way to say it is the association with the (LeConte) name has been based upon his work in science.” Gediman said to the Bee.

We want to know what you think - Do you think the National Park Service should change the name or let it be? Leave us a comment below!


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