Zachary Warma

In their June 2018 report, “Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy,” the Southern Poverty Law Center identifies over one-hundred Confederate symbols that have been removed across the United States in the wake of the 2015 murder of nine black parishioners at Mother Emanuel Church in Charleston, South Carolina and the fatal violence perpetuated by white nationalists in 2017 opposing the potential removal of a Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville, Virginia.[1] Public markers to the Confederacy—of which 1,740 remain—are coming under heightened scrutiny, driven both by the supportive tweets of Donald Trump and the increasing publicity of white nationalist groups, as well as high-profile removal of monuments, whether sanctioned by official government decree or conducted by activists tired of institutional inaction, as evidenced by the August destruction of the “Silent Sam” statue honoring the Confederacy at the University of North Carolina. Monuments and memorials to the Confederacy, which sprang up after the end of Reconstruction, were intended to rewrite history as well as to reassert the social and political control of white over black Americans. In his speech discussing the 2017 removal of Confederate monuments from New Orleans, Mayor Mitch Landrieu spoke of the very specific aims of Confederate memorials: they “purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for” and “were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge.”[2]

These symbols honoring the “Lost Cause” are not exclusive to the Deep South. Three days after the chaos in Charlottesville, Los Angeles’s Hollywood Forever Cemetery, better known for hosting summer outdoor movie screenings and its celebrity gravesites, quietly removed a plaque sponsored by the United Daughters of the Confederacy honoring Confederate troops “who have died or may die on the Pacific Coast.” Commenting on the cemetery’s actions, Los Angeles Mayor Eric Garcetti remarked, “Public Confederate memorials I think have no place in our nation any more than you would put up a memorial to other acts of hate or division in this country. People can learn that history, but they don’t need to lionize it.”[3] The Hollywood Forever plaque is far from the only reminder of California’s embrace of racial intolerance. The natural and man-made structures honoring Joseph Le Conte that dot California’s landscape are a sobering indicator of how the Sierra Club and the University of California—among the state’s most esteemed institutions—extolled and lionized white supremacists to the benefit of their own image, and how by ignoring the bigotry of their early leaders they are ultimately complicit in fostering the same racially disfigured vision of the past perpetuated by monuments to the Confederacy.

They “purposefully celebrate a fictional, sanitized Confederacy; ignoring the death, ignoring the enslavement, and the terror that it actually stood for” and “were erected purposefully to send a strong message to all who walked in their shadows about who was still in charge.”

Born in 1823 in Liberty County, Georgia, professor Joseph Le Conte did not step foot in California until the age of forty-six. Educated at the University of Georgia, New York’s College of Physicians and Surgeons (now part of Columbia University), and Harvard University, Le Conte taught at the University of Georgia and South Carolina College (now the University of South Carolina), where he chaired the Chemistry and Geology Department from 1856 until 1868. It was this opportunity to join his brother John as one of the first hires at the newly formed University of California that ultimately brought Le Conte west. While John served as the University’s first interim president and a professor of physics, Joseph was the university’s first botanist, natural historian, and geologist. Over the course of his three-decade tenure at the University of California, Joseph Le Conte established a national reputation as an academic and public figure. Publishing on a range of subjects, including geology, biology, evolution, and religion, Le Conte attained membership into the American Philosophical Society and the American Academy of Sciences, of which he served as president in 1892.

Le Conte’s notoriety in post-Civil War America also stemmed from his work as an environmentalist. An enthusiastic outdoorsman, Le Conte joined a Berkeley student trip to Yosemite in 1870, where he first encountered the famed naturalist, John Muir. The two men became close friends, and Le Conte co-founded the Sierra Club with Muir, serving on the club’s Board of Directors from 1892-1898. It was on his tenth Yosemite trip, and the Sierra Club’s first Yosemite Valley and Tuolumne Meadows outing, that Joseph Le Conte passed away on 6 July 1901 at the age of seventy-eight.

Imprinting Le Conte on the Natural and Built Environment  

In death, Le Conte was hailed as a visionary academic and thinker. Writing on the Le Conte brothers months after Joseph’s death, John Muir remarked, “Their writings brought them world-wide renown, and their names will live, but far more important is the inspiring, uplifting, enlightening influence they exerted on their students and the community, which, spreading from mind to mind, heart to heart, age to age, in ever widening circles, will go on forever.”[4] Le Conte was memorialized not in words alone—his name would find its way on an array of places and objects across the country, both natural and man-made. Le Conte Glacier in Alaska, Mount Le Conte in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, Le Conte Divide in the Sierra National Forest, and Le Conte Falls in Yosemite National Park all are named in his honor.[5] Three years after Le Conte’s death, the Sierra Club opened the Joseph LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite National Park, with a bas-relief of Le Conte proclaiming him a “Scientist and Savant” placed centrally above the fireplace. The University of Georgia’s LeConte Hall, now home to the school’s history department, was dedicated in 1905, and a large portrait of the UGA graduate and former professor hangs in the foyer. The University of South Carolina’s LeConte College is named for both Joseph and his brother John, “nineteenth-century faculty members who were among the most renowned scientists of their day,” according to the school.[6]

Due to the influence of the University of California, Le Conte’s memory remains deeply enshrined in the Golden State. Professor Eugene Hilgard, a colleague and friend at the University of California, wrote that “it was Le Conte through whom the University of California first became known to the outside world as a school and center of science on the western border of the continent; and for a number of years he almost alone kept it in view of the world of science.”[7] Le Conte Hall is home to Berkeley’s Physics Department and was central to the university’s research in atomic science and nuclear weaponry; Le Conte Avenue, which runs a few blocks north of Le Conte Hall, dates to at least 1890; and until recently-renamed this year, LeConte Elementary, one of Berkeley Unified School District’s original schools, less than two miles from the heart of the university. In Los Angeles, a city in which Le Conte neither lived nor taught, Le Conte Avenue divides the University of California Los Angeles campus from Westwood Village,[8] while Le Conte Middle School, a magnet school of the Los Angeles Unified School District, is located in East Hollywood.

To this day, Le Conte’s contributions to the University of California are widely publicized. A biography that appears in near-identical form on the webpages of UC Berkeley’s Department of Integrative Biology, Department of Earth and Planetary Sciences, and the Museum of Paleontology claims Le Conte impacted the school “in three ways: he lectured and wrote on geology and on evolution and life of the past, he acquired collections of fossils for the University, and he influenced students greatly with his enthusiasm for learning,”[9] and the Department of Integrative Biology bestows the annual Joseph LeConte Award in Natural History to students who have shown deep interests in natural history.

The numerous memorials and plaudits for Le Conte, from those in his era and our own, omit a central component of the professor’s legacy – as a slave owner and Confederate scientist, a bitter opponent of Reconstruction, and a multi-decade peddler of “scientific” racism, Joseph Le Conte spent the entirety of his life advocating and advancing the cause of white supremacy.

Slave-Owning Family and the Instruction of Louis Agassiz

Joseph Le Conte was born, raised, and educated in a world of racial inequality. Le Conte’s childhood home, The Woodmanston plantation in Liberty County, Georgia, held in his estimation roughly two hundred enslaved persons. Writing in his memoirs about his father Louis, Le Conte notes, “The negroes were strongly attached to him, and proud of calling him master. He cared not only for their physical but also for their moral and religious welfare…. There never was a more orderly, nor apparently a happier, working class than the negroes of Liberty County as I knew them in my boyhood.”[10] The image of docile, contented slaves is consistent with Le Conte’s gauzy image of antebellum Georgia—“I linger with especial delight on this early plantation life, far from town and the busy hum of men; a life that has passed forever. It will live for a time in the memory of a few, and then only in history. It was, indeed, a very paradise for boys.”

While Le Conte first studied at the University of Georgia and the College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York, it was his fifteen months at Harvard that he credited with his “second and higher intellectual birth,” thanks to the tutelage and instruction of principally one man—Louis Agassiz. A noted intellectual of the nineteenth century, the Swiss-born zoologist was months into his position as a professor of natural history at Harvard’s Lawrence Scientific School when Le Conte arrived in Cambridge in August 1850. According to Le Conte’s biographer Lester Stephens, Le Conte “eventually claimed that ‘more than any other’ person, Agassiz had ‘inspired’ his subsequent life.”[11] The two men spent numerous hours together daily, traveled on field expeditions to New York and Key West, and were friends until Agassiz’s death in 1873.

While making major strides in the classification and cataloguing of animal species, Louis Agassiz also pushed pseudo-scientific claims to support the idea that blacks and whites had separate origins, and later, that blacks were a distinct, inferior species from whites.[12] In an 1847 lecture in Charleston, South Carolina, Agassiz claimed, “The brain of the Negro is that of the imperfect brain of a seventh month’s infant in the womb of a White.”[13] While touring slave plantations around Columbia, South Carolina in March 1850, Agassiz commissioned daguerreotypes of seven enslaved persons, all naked, sitting or standing, whom he had personally selected. The intent of the project was to serve as “evidence” of Agassiz’s racial theories. Brian Wallis, writing in American Art, notes the daguerreotypes “were designed to analyze the physical differences between European whites and African blacks, but at the same time they were meant to prove the superiority of the white race.”[14] Agassiz’s efforts to deploy “scientific” principles as a means of supporting discrimination and white supremacy would echo in his star pupil’s later writings.

The intent of the project was to serve as “evidence” of Agassiz’s racial theories. Brian Wallis, writing in American Art, notes the daguerreotypes “were designed to analyze the physical differences between European whites and African blacks, but at the same time they were meant to prove the superiority of the white race.”

The Confederate Nitre and Mining Bureau, and Opposition to Reconstruction

During the Civil War, Joseph Le Conte lent his full support and services to the cause of the Confederacy. While South Carolina was debating secession in December 1860, Le Conte was chair of Chemistry and Geology department at South Carolina College in Columbia. In his memoirs, Le Conte reverently recalled the proceedings – the Convention was “the gravest, ablest, and most dignified body of men I ever saw brought together. They were fully aware of the extreme gravity of their action.”[15] Due to enlistment and South Carolina’s draft, the college’s enrollment dragged until instruction was suspended in 1862. While Le Conte continued his academic studies, he longed to aid in the war efforts. “The College was suspended; I must do something,” Le Conte reminisced. “I felt that I must do something in support of the cause that absorbed every feeling.”[16] In 1863, Le Conte served as a chemist aiding in the manufacturing of medicinal products before being appointed to the Confederate Nitre and Munitions Bureau, in which his brother John also served. Using his former laboratory at South Carolina College, Le Conte became one of the select scientists charged with inspecting nitre caves and beds across the Confederacy for the purpose of manufacturing gunpowder.[17] The academic backgrounds of the Le Conte brothers were put to work for the physical production of the South’s war-making capacity.[18]

The end of the Civil War was a bleak period for the Le Conte family. Writing in her diary in late February 1865, seventeen-year-old Emma Le Conte, Joseph’s eldest child, lamented, “We have lost everything, but if all this—negroes, property—all could be given back a hundredfold, I would not be willing to go back to them. I would rather endure any poverty than live under Yankee rule… anything but live as one with Yankees—that word in my mind is a synonym for all that is mean, despicable and abhorrent.”[19] While Joseph Le Conte managed to evade capture from William Sherman’s Union troops advancing into South Carolina (an experience he chronicled that was posthumously published by the University of California in 1937), his brother John was captured, and ultimately paroled. Emma Le Conte recounts that after his release, John, the future President of the University of California, threatened a Union officer with continued violence if the South was vanquished. “Well, suppose we defeat and disperse his (Lee’s) army?’ ‘I suppose then we will have to resort to guerrilla warfare.’ The officer looked surprised and shocked.”[20] The Le Contes would find some cause for celebration in 1865, however, with the news of President Abraham Lincoln’s assassination. “We were all in a tremor of excitement,” Emma wrote. “At home it was the same…. The first feeling I had when the news was announced was simply gratified revenge. The man we hated has met his proper end.”[21] Writing twenty-four years after the end of the Civil War, Joseph Le Conte would still describe the rebellion in near mythic-terms: “There was never was a war in which were more thoroughly enlisted the hearts of the whole people—men, women, and children—than were those of the South in this. To us it was literally a life and death struggle for national existence.”[22]

It was the onset of Reconstruction and its attempts at racial equality—which Le Conte bitterly opposed—that ultimately led to his arrival in California. In 1866, South Carolina College was reopened as the University of South Carolina. Under the auspices of the state’s racially diverse legislature, the university opened its doors to all students regardless of race, and earned the distinction of being the only public university in the Reconstruction South to achieve full integration, boasting black Boards of Trustees, black professors, and by 1876 a predominantly black student body.[23] Le Conte, who had resumed teaching at the university, found the pending changes to the university a moral affront. In a letter to his sister-in-law about the actions of the state legislature, Le Conte wrote, “A bill has been introduced by one of the animals, Sarspartas by name, a negro, the purport of which is to declare the chairs of this University vacant.”[24] Le Conte’s daughter Caroline, providing the introduction to ‘Ware Sherman, her father’s journal from the last months of the Civil War, recounts his sentiments toward the transformation of the university: “The South Carolina Legislature, through its negro board of trustees, was taking the first steps to declare the chairs vacant and to convert the University into a school for illiterate negroes. Now, indeed, emigration was imperative: England, Mexico, Venezuela, Brazil, were all discussed in turn.”[25] The Le Conte brothers, having difficulty obtaining employment due to their work for the Confederacy, considered fleeing the United States rather than teach at a school that admitted non-white students. Even months before his death, Le Conte’s disdain for Reconstruction remained: “The iniquity of the carpet-bag government was simply inexpressible. The sudden enfranchisement of the negro without qualification was the greatest political crime ever perpetrated by any people, as is now admitted by all thoughtful men.”[26]

With assistance from powerful friends, the Le Contes obtained employment outside of the Reconstruction South, courtesy of the recently formed University of California. Louis Agassiz, Le Conte’s former mentor, along with Joseph Henry, the first Secretary of the Smithsonian Institution, and Benjamin Silliman, the founder of the American Journal of Science, among others, wrote in support of the brothers’ candidacies, with John being the very first elected member of the University of California faculty in November 1868, and Joseph less than a month later. It was the University of California, recalled Caroline LeConte, which “when every worthwhile academic door was closed against them, saved the LeConte brothers from exile to a foreign land.”[27] Three years after the end of the Civil War, the University of California welcomed with open arms two slave-owning Confederates scientists to help lead the new institution.

Le Conte’s “Scientific” White Supremacy

Firmly ensconced at Berkeley, Joseph Le Conte used the imprimatur of the University of California and his academic standing to repeatedly advocate for the disenfranchisement and repression of communities of color. In “The Genesis of Sex” published in the December 1879 edition of Popular Science and “The Effect of Mixture of Races on Human Progress” in the April 1880 Berkeley Quarterly, Le Conte builds upon the ideas articulated by his mentor Louis Agassiz and argues that sexual reproduction in plants and animals explains the perils of racial intermixing. “I regard the light-haired blue-eyed Teutonic and the negro as the extreme types,” writes Le Conte, “and their mixture as producing the worst effects. The mixture of the Spanish and Indian in Mexico and South America has produced a physically hardy and prolific race; but I think it will be acknowledged that the general result on social progress has not been encouraging. It seems probable that the mixture of extreme races produces and inferior result.”[28]

In his 1889 article “The South Revisited” and his 1892 lecture turned book The Race Problem in the South, Joseph Le Conte combines his scientific racism with his nostalgia for the antebellum South and animosity toward Reconstruction to present an unambiguous case for white supremacy. In Le Conte’s view, the institution of slavery, for which the South was not responsible—“the slaves were not brought in her ships, but in those of other countries of other parts of our own country”[29]— and with its planter class “a kind of aristocracy,”[30] was beneficial for African Americans, who were uplifted by their interactions with whites. “Not only has the Negro been elevated to his present condition by contact with the white race,” asserts Le Conte, “but he is sustained in that position wholly by the same contact, and whenever that support is withdrawn he relapses again to his primitive state.”[31] The political ramifications of this racial distinction is clear to Le Conte: “The Negro race as a while is certainly at present incapable of self-government and unworthy of the ballot; and their participation without distinction in public affairs can only result in disaster.”[32] Therefore, the South “is solid for self-government by the white race, as being the self-governing race and as a whole the only self-governing race.”[33]

To enforce white-rule, Le Conte unreservedly called for the suppression of black voting rights. Writing little more than a decade after the end of Reconstruction—the “brief reign of the carpet-baggers sustained by Negro votes after the war” that produced “disastrous results”[34]— Le Conte viewed the enacting of property and education requirements for voters as “perfectly just and perfectly rational.” Le Conte concedes such restrictions would allow for some black voters, “but only such as ought to vote.”[35] Given the supposed inherent inferiority of blacks, and the policy consequences of Reconstruction, the limitation of voting rights strikes Le Conte as justifiable policy. To achieve the ends of white domination, Le Conte rationalized the use of racial violence and the abrogation of the Reconstruction Amendments, passed specifically to protect voters of color. Le Conte expressed little concern for violence wrought against blacks exercising their right to vote, and found that kind of violence to be in service of the greater good. “Doubtless intimidation has been used in the South as elsewhere; perhaps more than elsewhere, for the motive was stronger—viz., the existence of a civilized community.”[36] As for the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, intended to secure the rights of newly freed blacks, should those laws conflict with the South’s “right” of white domination, writes Le Conte, “so much worse for the fundamental law and the constitutional amendments, for it shows that these are themselves in conflict with the still more fundamental laws of Nature, which are the laws of God. If it be so, then the South is very sorry, but it can’t be helped.”[37]

Throughout his works, Le Conte asserted that his racism is grounded in Darwinism and evolutionary science. “The laws determining the effects of contact of species… among animals may be summed up under the formula, ‘The struggle for life and survival of the fittest.’ It is vain to deny that the same law is applicable to the races of man also,”[38] asserts Le Conte. White supremacy, therefore, is simply following the laws of nature. “Given two races widely different in intellectual and moral elevation, especially in the capacity for self-government, in other words very different in grade of race-evolution…the inevitable result will be, must be, that the higher race will assume control and determine the policy of the community.”[39] Bigotry, in the view of Le Conte, is simply an extension of evolutionary self-preservation. “Race-prejudice, or race-repulsion, to use a stronger term,” writes Le Conte, “is itself not a wholly irrational feeling. It is probably an instinct necessary to preserve the blood purity of the higher race.”[40]

Le Conte’s Legacy Revisited

In late 2015, Aaron Mair and Michael Brune, the then-President and Executive Director, respectively, of the Sierra Club, wrote to the Director of the National Park Service with a request—that the NPS change the historic and common name of a National Historic Landmark located in Yosemite National Park, the LeConte Memorial Lodge. The Lodge, which has been operated by Sierra Club volunteers since its 1904 construction by the club, served as Yosemite’s first visitor center. The Sierra Club’s Board of Directors voted in October 2015, however, to request that Joseph Le Conte’s name be removed from the center. The reasoning for the request—the increased awareness of Le Conte’s racist ideology. “A generation or two ago,” writes Mair and Brune, “this aspect of Mr. Le Conte’s legacy was virtually unknown to the public. More recently, however, 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.”[41] With greater understanding of Le Conte’s legacy, Mair and Brune note, “those who visit the LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite Valley are more likely to be horrified and offended to learn that this public building is named in honor” of the professor. [42]


Missing from Mair and Brune’s letter is even a tacit acknowledgement of the Sierra Club’s role in Le Conte’s racism being “virtually unknown.” Mair and Brune’s letter notes that in the wake of the 2015 murder of nine Charleston churchgoers at the hands of a white supremacist, U.C. Berkeley’s Black Student Union called on the school to change the name of Le Conte Hall. Berkeley residents raised the question with Berkeley Unified School District officials about renaming LeConte Elementary. Mirroring the letter, the Sierra Club webpage addressing Le Conte and the Lodge renaming claims his “racist theories came to light in 2015.”[43] Contrary to the organization’s assertions, Le Conte’s racism did not somehow disappear after his death 117 years ago. In addition to his ample writing output while living, Le Conte’s chronicle of his flight from Sherman’s army, ‘Ware Sherman, was published in 1937 by the University of California Press; his daughter’s Civil War-era diary was first published in 1957; The Race Problem in the South was reprinted in 1969; and a biography of his life was released in 1982. On a biography page linked to “People Important to John Muir,” the organization even provided an online link to Le Conte’s autobiography. But the Sierra Club was not passively ignoring Le Conte’s racism—they were propagating a highly sanitized version of his life that scrubbed away any stains of bigotry.

On 3 July 2004, the Sierra Club hosted the centennial and rededication of the LeConte Memorial Lodge in Yosemite National Park. Dr. Bonnie Gisel, curator of the Lodge and a John Muir scholar, provided the opening remarks. The Lodge, Dr. Gisel noted, was “built upon the worldview of Dr. Joseph LeConte, his thoughtful scientific study, and love for the natural world.” A “beloved” academic, Le Conte was “passionate yet simple. He possessed an articulate unaffected character, dedicated to making his ideas animate and forceful in the practical world.”[44]On hand for the festivities was a Le Conte re-enactor, and Le Conte’s great-grandson. As for providing a fuller picture of Le Conte’s background, a “Historical Profile” produced by the Sierra Club Member Services that linked to the Centennial Celebration webpage  mentioned, “During the Civil War, he taught chemistry and geology at South Carolina College. After the war, because ‘rebels’ were not eligible for employment, Le Conte traveled west and, with his brother John, took part in the organization of the University of California.”[45] Joseph Le Conte, according to the Sierra Club, was not a former slave owner who peddled racist demagoguery masked as evolutionary science, but rather “one of the most respected scientists in the United States in his day.”[46] There is a reason why, as Mair and Brune noted in their 2015 letter, Le Conte’s repugnant views “were virtually unknown”—the Sierra Club promulgated an incomplete and hagiographic vision of their bigoted co-founder.

Near the end of their 2015 letter to the National Park Service, Mair and Brune take great pains to differentiate Le Conte’s legacy from other monuments honoring notable Confederates, on the basis of Le Conte’s continued advocacy for white supremacy decades after the end of the Civil War: “Changing the name of the Sierra Club’s lodge would not set a precedent that calls into question every image of the Confederate flag or every statue of Robert E. Lee. Those are very different.”[47] Nearly three years later, these words haven taken on a deeply ironic twist. While the Sierra Club strove to separate Le Conte from other notable Confederates, the 2017 violence in Charlottesville tied to the city’s statue of Robert E. Lee has rightfully called into question every public memorial to the Confederacy, including those honoring Joseph Le Conte.

Both Joseph Le Conte’s decades of scientific racism and the Confederate monuments built across America after Reconstruction were components of the national program of “reconciliation,” which in the second half of the nineteenth-century sought to strip the Civil War of its explicit racial implications in favor of a narrative the valorized the struggles of both North and South. In Race and Reunion, his seminal work chronicling the struggle over national remembrance of the war, David Blight outlines the centrality of the South’s racist historical revisionism in dictating national reconciliation, as well as the collective memory around the Civil War. “The Lost Cause,” writes Blight, “became an integral part of national reconciliation by dint of sheer sentimentalism, by political argument, and by recurrent celebrations and rituals. For most white Southerners, the Lost Cause evolved into a language of vindication and renewal, as well as an array of practices and public monuments thigh which they could solidify both their Southern pride and their Americanness. By the 1890s, Confederate memories… offered an asset of conservative traditions by which the entire country could gird itself against racial, political, and industrial disorder… it also armed those determined to control, if not destroy, the rise of black people in the social order.”[48] Le Conte’s academic career, similarly to monumental horseback statues of Lee, sought of to recast the Confederacy from a rebellion dedicated to the preservation of slavery to a noble “Lost Cause,” and both were explicit in their efforts to project white hegemony over terrorized communities of color. The Sierra Club and the University of California may not have erected monuments physically analogous to UNC’s Silent Sam or the statues in New Orleans or Charlottesville, but by elevating an incomplete legacy of Joseph Le Conte, they participated in the very same pernicious revisionism that enabled the flourishing of white supremacy in California and across the country. The Sierra Club leadership was mistaken—there is no difference between continuing to honor Joseph Le Conte or any Confederate leader.

In the three years that have passed since the transmission of the Sierra Club’s letter, Le Conte’s bigotry has come under greater scrutiny, and organizations have sought to distance themselves from his views. The LeConte Memorial Lodge was successfully renamed “Yosemite Conservation Heritage Center,” with the Sierra Club publicly stating “it is unacceptable to continue to have a public education center in the park named in honor of a man who advocated for theories about the inferiority of nonwhite races. To do so would be counter both to our values and to our desire to promote inclusivity in our parks.”[49] In May 2018 LeConte Elementary was rechristened Sylvia Mendez Elementary after the civil rights activist whose family’s legal action ended segregation in California’s public education system in 1947, predating the Brown v. Board Supreme Court ruling.[50]

In the wake of the 2015 protests, former Berkeley chancellor Nicholas Dirks convened “the Building Naming Task Force,” whose April 2017 report recommended the university “promptly begin the process of revising the UC Berkeley Principles for Naming.”[51] The report, however, mentioned Le Conte Hall only once.[52] Under continued criticism for their ponderous response, the now-chancellor Carol Christ setup in March 2018 a twelve-member Building Name Review Committee.[53] Proposals, which the committee will review before sending recommendations to the chancellor, must “explicitly address” whether the “the legacy of the namesake is fundamentally at odds with the mission of the University.”[54]

These moves by the University of California, the Sierra Club, and Berkeley Unified School District are positive steps in acknowledging their past support for Le Conte, but they will ultimately be inadequate if no serious effort is undertaken to properly explain why they chose to honor a noted white supremacist for decades. To quietly blot Le Conte from the history of California’s premier institutions would be a pernicious act of historical revisionism not dissimilar to Le Conte’s efforts to whitewash slavery from the Civil War. The Georgetown Slavery Archive chronicling the school’s sale of 227 African slaves, Brown University’s Committee on Slavery and Justice Report, and National Geographic’s recent work documenting their history of racism offer examples of institutions fully grappling with their past that both the Sierra Club and the University of California should look to in considering how to properly contextualize their complicity in upholding some of the most malignant strains of racism embedded in this country. Removing Joseph Le Conte from a college lecture hall or a Yosemite cabin is simply not enough—Le Conte’s life and legacy are a powerful testament to California’s deep intertwining with the rest of American history. Better understanding Le Conte’s role in early California helps to illuminate uncomfortable realities about historical revisionism and white supremacy that affect us to the modern day.

Le Conte’s life and legacy are a powerful testament to California’s deep intertwining with the rest of American history. Better understanding Le Conte’s role in early California helps to illuminate uncomfortable realities about historical revisionism and white supremacy that affect us to the modern day.

The Sierra Club and University of California’s veneration of Joseph Le Conte is unfortunately not an aberration within California. Eugene Hilgard, Le Conte’s fellow Berkeley professor and Confederate scientist, has streets named for him in Berkeley and Los Angeles; Louis Agassiz, Le Conte’s mentor and early pioneer in scientific racism, is honored with a statue prominently displayed at Stanford University, atop a building named after another of Agassiz’s pupils, Stanford’s first president David Starr Jordan, who was a major force in the American eugenics movement. If California, and its leading institutions, truly wish to serve a model of inclusivity for the rest of the country, we must topple our monuments to men like Joseph Le Conte, and the numerous others like him who spent their lives advocating for a racial hierarchy that has denied untold number of Californians their basic human and Constitutional rights. In the end, we must understand why we celebrated these men in the first place and for so long.


[1] “Whose Heritage? Public Symbols of the Confederacy,” Southern Poverty Law Center, 2018.

[2] Mitch Landrieu, “Mitch Landrieu’s Speech on the Removal of Confederate Monuments in New Orleans,” The New York Times, 23 May 2017,

[3] Logan Byrnes, “Confederate monument at Hollywood Forever Cemetery removed,” Fox 11 LA, 15 August 2017,

[4] John Muir Bibliography Resource, “Reminiscences of Joseph LeConte” (1901), John Muir Bibliography, 213,

[5] Ann Lange, “The Peaks and Professors—University Names in the High Sierras,” Chronicle of the University of California (Spring 2000): 95,

[6] “University of South Carolina University Map–LeConte College,” University of South Carolina Board of Trustees, 2002,

[7] Eugene Hilgard, “Biographical Memoir of Joseph Le Conte 1823-1901,” National Academy of Sciences (18 April 1907): 211,

[8]  Herbert B. Foster, The Role of the Engineer’s Office in the Development of the University of California Campuses (Berkeley: University of California, 1960), 120-121, California Digital Library,

[9] “Integrative Biology Department Awards,” UC Regents | Integrative Biology,

[10] Joseph Le Conte, The Autobiography of Joseph Le Conte: Edited by William Dallam Armes (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1903), 12-13, Documenting the American South, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, 1998,

[11] Lester Stephens, Joseph LeConte: Gentle Prophet of Evolution (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982), 34.

[12] Louis Menard, “Morton, Agassiz, and the Origins of Scientific Racism of the United States,” The Journal of Blacks in Higher Education 34 (Winter 2001-2002): 112.

[13] Ibid.

[14] Brian Wallis, “Black Bodies, White Science: Louis Agassiz’s Slave Daguerreotypes,” American Art 9 (Summer 1995): 40.

[15] Le Conte, The Autobiography of Joseph Le Conte, 180.

[16] Ibid., 183-184.

[17] Ibid., 184.

[18] Eugene Hilgard, Le Conte’s future colleague at Berkeley, was engaged in similar work in Mississippi, assisting in the Confederate defenses of Vicksburg. Edward P.F. Rose, C. Paul Nathanail, Geology and Warfare: Examples of the Influence of Terrain and Geologists on Military Operations (London: Geological Society of Science, 2000), 88.

[19] Emma LeConte, When the World Ended: The Diary of Emma Le Conte (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1987), 66.

[20] Ibid., 76.

[21] Ibid., 93.

[22] Le Conte, The Autobiography of Joseph Le Conte, 181.

[23] “Reconstruction 1865-1873,” University of South Carolina Office of Multicultural Student Affairs,

[24] Caroline LeConte, “Introduction,” in Joseph Le Conte, Ware Sherman: A Journal of Three Months’ Personal Experiences in the Last Days of the Confederacy: With an Introductory Reminiscence by His Daughter Caroline LeConte (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1937), xxiii.

[25] Ibid., xvii.

[26] Le Conte, The Autobiography of Joseph Le Conte, 238.

[27] Caroline LeConte, “Introduction,” xxx.

[28] Joseph Le Conte, “The Effect of Mixture of Races on Human Progress,” Fortnightly Club: Berkeley. Berkeley Quarterly: A Journal of Social Science 1 (April 1880): 100-101, HathiTrust Digital Library,;view=1up;seq=91.

[29] Joseph Le Conte. The Race Problem in the South (Miami: Mnemosyne Publishing, 1969), 354.

[30] Joseph Le Conte, “The South Revisited,” The Overland Monthly, Volume XIV, Second Series, 79 (July 1889): 24, Making of America,

[31] Le Conte, The Race Problem in the South, 367.

[32] Ibid., 376.

[33] Le Conte, “The South Revisited,” 29.

[34] Le Conte, The Race Problem in the South, 364.

[35] Le Conte, “The South Revisited,” 30.

[36] Ibid., 376.

[37] Ibid., 364.

[38] Ibid., 359.

[39] Le Conte, “The South Revisited,” 27.

[40] Le Conte, The Race Problem in the South, 365.

[41] Letter from Aaron Mair and Michael Bruce to Jonathan Jarvis and Stephanie Toothman, 2015, p. 2. The Sierra Club,

[42] Ibid.

[43] “Dr. Joseph LeConte,” The Sierra Club Yosemite Heritage Conservation Center,

[44] Bonnie Johanna Gisel. “Remarks at the LeConte Memorial Lodge Rededication Ceremony, 3 July 2004,” The Sierra Club,

[45] “Joseph Le Conte Sierra Club Historical Profile,” The Sierra Club,

[46] Ibid.

[47] Letter from Aaron Mair and Michael Bruce to Jonathan Jarvis and Stephanie Toothman (2015), 2.

[48] David Blight, Race and Reunion–The Civil War in American Memory (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2003), 266.

[49] “History of the LeConte Memorial Lodge,” The Sierra Club,

[50] Cade Johnson, “Le Conte Elementary renamed after Sylvia Mendez, a key figure in California desegregation.” The Daily Californian, 25 May 2018,

[51] Revati Thatte, “‘Reckoning with that history’: UC Berkeley revisits concerns over controversial building names,” The Daily Californian, 28 August 2017,

[52] University of California, Berkeley, “Building Naming Project Task Force Summary Report and Recommendations,” April 2017,

[53] Ella Colbert, “‘Histories of racism, colonialism and exclusion’: UC Berkeley considers changing controversial building names,” The Daily Californian, 22 March 2018,

[54] “Building Name Review Committee–Submit a Proposal,” UC Berkeley Office of the Chancellor,


Zachary Warma is a graduate of Stanford University, where some of his fondest memories were the hours spent as an Assistant Student Archivist for Stanford’s Department of Special Collections, compiling a fraternity’s recently donated historical papers. He currently lives in Los Angeles, where he works in political polling and strategic communications.

Copyright: © 2018 Zachary Warma. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License (CC-BY 4.0), which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited. See


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