The Alaska Marine Highway System ferry LeConte at the Auke Bay Terminal on Monday, March 5, 2018. (Juneau Empire file photo)

The Alaska Marine Highway System ferry LeConte at the Auke Bay Terminal on Monday, March 5, 2018. (Juneau Empire file photo)

Petition seeks name change for LeConte state ferry

Petersburg man calling attention to what he calls Joseph LeConte’s racist history.

A petition that would ask the ferry service to change the name of the ship LeConte is being circulated, 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.”

The ferry service was not aware of the petition as of Tuesday, said Sam Dapcevich, spokesperson for AMHS. “We’ll take a look but we don’t have a comment right now.”

AMHS vessels are named after glaciers, in this case LeConte Glacier in Petersburg. The 235-foot ferry, which turns 50 next year, serves the northern end of the Southeast.

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 disciples, from geology to religion, and from monocular and binocular vision, to 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 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 two-building 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 board of the Sierra 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 Sierra Club.

The family owned a plantation near Savannah 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, 36, is in Southern California right now 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 the Palmer Project in Haines as a mechanic. Before that he served in the U.S. Coast Guard for nine years.

The petition had 26 signatures by Tuesday night. He’d like to have 500 names before he goes to the AMHS board to ask for consideration. After that he wants to take aim at the glacier’s name itself.

“Why is the glacier named after this man?” asked Daignault, who doesn’t see his efforts as political. “I don’t think anyone really knows.”

• Contact Meredith Jordan at meredith.jordan@juneauempire.com or (907) 615-3190.

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