Feb 5, 2021 | Rev. Rob Fuquay
Greetings from Sevierville, TN. I’m down here planning sermons for the coming year along with other church-related work. From the window of my room, I have a great view of Mt. LeConte, the third tallest mountain in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park. It is just 50 feet shy of the tallest peak, Clingman’s Dome. It has a commanding view over the valley connecting Sevierville, Pigeon Forge, and Gatlinburg. The view from the top is magnificent this time of year (though I won’t take the time to hike it this trip). Summer haze usually prevents good views at that time, but in winter, you can see for miles. I took this picture this morning once the daylight was bright enough to see it well, but the pic still doesn’t capture the beauty of LeConte.
The name of the mountain unfortunately has a less dignified history. Joseph LeConte was a Civil War-era geologist who also dabbled in eugenics—the practice of improving the human species by mating people with desirable hereditary traits—something the Nazis were fond of trying. LeConte was an ardent segregationist who abhorred Reconstruction and loudly denounced the equal rights of black people. So how did a mountain ever get named for him?
Well, this is where things get controversial. Some historians say it wasn’t Joseph for whom it was named, but his brother John. John’s views on race are not as known, leading some to believe he didn’t share his brother’s views. However, many feel the mountain was still named for Joseph, but not because of his racist ideology, but more likely because of his work as a geologist and some political favors for the folks who got to decide things like what name to give a mountain.
As I look at it this morning I think about the current work to tear down monuments honoring people associated with segregation. Good luck tearing this one down! But then again, that’s the point. We can’t tear it down. That’s because people didn’t build it. God did. The very idea of calling a mountain by a person’s name is pretty humorous, as if a mountain could belong to a person! Yet that is what often happens in our world. People can never name or try to put their identity on what God has made. That goes the other way around. Racism is nothing more than the attempt of some people declaring the identity of others, and that is just something we can’t do.
People are like mountains. We are beautiful, dignified, outstanding. It is God who names us. We can only accept or not accept that truth. As we begin Black History Month, I hope you’ll take time to learn histories, like Mt. LeConte, that can be uncomfortable; and also learn histories of great Black Americans who in spite of the words and actions of hateful people did great things for others and their country, and inspire hope in us today.
If Mt. LeConte ever gets a new name I hope it won’t be for a person. If I get to choose, it might be Ditsawoduhi, which is Cherokee for beautiful.
Have a beautiful day!