Petition asks that state ferry system rename the LeConte

A petition is being circulated, asking the state ferry system to change the name of the LeConte, the latest in a series of efforts around the country to strip the names of people who enslaved others from public spaces.

The change.org petition, posted Nov. 12 by Petersburg resident Terrence Daignault, asks the Alaska Marine Highway System to add the topic to an upcoming meeting agenda.

“Joseph LeConte was a slave-owning Georgian who believed in racial superiority,” the petition states. “He never once stepped foot in the state of Alaska and does not need to be recognized here.”

Alaska state ferries are named after glaciers, in this case LeConte Glacier on the mainland just north of the Stikine River. The 235-foot-long ferry, which turns 50 next year, has in recent years served the northern end of Southeast Alaska.

Daignault said he was on LeConte, traveling from Petersburg to Sitka, when he read the placard describing Joseph LeConte. It wasn’t very detailed.

LeConte was a noted naturalist who was prolific across numerous disciplines, from geology to religion, from monocular and binocular vision, plus philosophy and art, according to the Sierra Club website. He was an early member of the Sierra Club and served on its board.

“Once I got (cell) service, I looked further into him as a person and read his history and was very astounded that his name has such a presence in Alaska,” said Daignault, 36.

LeConte, along with his brother John LeConte, served as early faculty at the University of California Berkeley. Their name was stripped from a hall at the university in 2020 after a formal review process, along with the name of another former slaveholder who avowed racist views, according to the university website.

That followed the 2015 removal of Joseph LeConte’s name from a lodge in Yosemite National Park. He died suddenly at Yellowstone in 1901 at the start of the first Sierra Club High Trip, prompting a decision to build the LeConte Memorial Lodge in his honor.

When LeConte’s racial theories resurfaced in 2015, the Sierra Club board of directors determined that “a public education center named in honor of a man who promoted theories about the inferiority of nonwhite races” was counter to the values of both the club and the national parks, according to the environmental organization.

The LeConte family owned a plantation near Savannah, Georgia, in the mid-1800s, where people were enslaved. During the Civil War, LeConte worked to aid the Confederate causes. After the war ended the brothers moved west.

According to the Sierra Club website, “LeConte adopted and elaborated on theories of racial inferiority that he used to rationalize the disenfranchisement and segregation of African Americans” in the 1880s and 1890s.

The Sierra Club formally requested the National Park Service remove the name from the lodge, which it did. It is now called Yosemite Conservation Heritage Center.

Daignault is in Southern California this winter, working as an engineer on a traditional sailing vessel. He said he’s done a lot of different “Alaska jobs,” including running his own troller for four years. He worked at a mining exploration project in Haines as a mechanic. Before that, he served in the U.S. Coast Guard for nine years.

He would like to have 500 names on the petition before he goes to the state ferry system operations board to ask for consideration. He had just a couple dozen signatures a week ago.

After that, he wants to take aim at the glacier’s name itself.

The glacier was named in 1887 by U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. C.M. Thomas for LeConte, who was then a professor of geology at the University of California Berkeley. It’s the same for LeConte Bay, according to the Dictionary of Alaska Place Names, last published by the U.S. Geological Survey in 1967.

 

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