Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks, a twin park system in central California, is home to Mt. Whitney as well as the world’s largest trees—the giant sequoias. The General Grant Grove is one of the best known and most visited of all stands of these massive, ancient trees. Though the grove is named after Union General Ulysses S. Grant, there is a Confederate interloper in the ranks of those majestic giants. The General Robert E. Lee tree, the 11th biggest tree on the planet, stands in Kings Canyon’s Grant Grove.
Whether or not Grant would have approved of his traitorous rival having his own tree in Grant Grove or not is now a moot point. As the country is in upheaval over race relations, with statues and monuments erected to honor slaveholders removed nationwide, park officials this week stripped all mention of Robert E. Lee from park signage and materials.
“National parks are places that protect and preserve our natural and cultural heritage. They tell the important stories of who we are as a people. They provide beauty and inspiration that can unite and heal,” said Sintia Kawasaki-Yee, the parks’ spokesperson. “It is our hope that removing references to the Robert E. Lee tree will enhance the role of Sequoia and Kings Canyon national parks as places for renewal.”
The tree can only be renamed by Congress or the NPS director; whether that will happen or not is unclear. But signage indicating the tree’s name, as well as any reference to Lee when discussing the tree or Grant Grove will be removed from any materials within the park, or produced by the park.
“Sequoia is a treasure to Tulare County and the world overall, but to have a divisive figure of hate in our public places contradicts the mission of the park service,” said Pedro Hernandez, a policy advocate for Audubon California. “It sends a message that people of color aren’t welcome.”
The change comes as outdoor organizations and public lands managers across the country are rethinking the names of events, places, and brands, that in many cases reflect racism.
California may see a slew of name changes. Tahoe’s Squaw Valley is seriously considering changing its name to remove the term “squaw,” a sexist and racist slur. A state park in Northern California may rename Negro Bar State Recreation Area. The entire town of Fort Bragg, California, may rename itself; Braxton Bragg was a Confederate general.
Across the country, similar actions are being taken up in parks large and small, municipal green spaces and federally designated recreation areas. It’s global, too. Australia, for instance, is reckoning with its own slave-trading past and is considering name changes of its own in public parks, like Ben Boyd National Park in New South Wales.
Sequoia and Kings Canyon recently changed the name of one of its entrances to highlight the work of Charles Young, Sequoia National Park’s first black superintendent. If the General Lee tree is to be renamed, there are plenty of important historic figures who fought for inclusion, rather than against it, who deserve public honor, many parks visitors say.
“When I see a name like General Lee, I figure the least people can do is change the name. He’s a figure who will be forever documented in history books and media,” Hernandez said. “There’s no shortage of people that a monument can be named after who are welcoming to all.”
Photo: Jeremy Thompson