Discrimination and Integration at the Angeles Chapter

  • Posted on 28 January 2021
  • By Morgan Goodwin - Senior Director, Angeles Chapter

Discrimination and Integration at the Angeles Chapter

February is Black History Month, and we’re taking this opportunity to shine a light on the Black history of the Sierra Club’s Angeles Chapter. This article is based on documents1 from the Sierra Club archives, as well as interviews conducted by the Oral History Program of the California State University in Fullerton and the Sierra Club History Committee. 
Elizabeth Porter became the first Black member of the Angeles Chapter in 1959. Porter was a schoolteacher in LA and a member of the Unitarian Church who had hiked with the Angeles Chapter. The chapter's appointed membership committee initially rejected Porter, but integration-minded members appealed the decision to the Board of Directors of the Sierra Club, despite threats of some leaders to resign if she was admitted. One of Porter’s sponsors, Nate Clark, was also president of the national Sierra Club, and the board ruled in favor of admitting her.
The chair of the Angeles Chapter in 1959 was Tom Amneus. He had apparently been sponsored into the chapter by a member of the “old guard',' who was surprised to learn later that Amneus was in favor of integration. As chair, Amneus supported Porter’s membership application, and arranged that his old sponsor be removed from position as membership chair of the chapter. At least two other Black members, Meade Kelsey, and his wife were admitted in 1959 or 1960. 
The 1950s were also a period of growth for the Sierra Club, and by 1960 the chapter numbered about 4,000 members. The notion that a membership committee might be responsible for the integrity of that many members was perhaps becoming antiquated. Still, the membership committee became the focal point for the tensions within the chapter. 
At the time, new members required two sponsors, and a review by the membership committee. The practice was common with social clubs at the time, and many thought of the Sierra Club as a private social club. No policy existed to exclude members on the basis of race, but in addition to sponsorship, several other practices allowed racism to persist. New members were expected, although not required, to attend new member dinners at a cafeteria in downtown LA, where they were watched and judged on whether their character would be suitable for membership. The 1950s were also the era of McCarthyism, and the accusation that someone was a communist was enough to deny membership. 
Integration-minded chapter leaders like Tom Amneus andNate Clark continued to work to make the Club a more inclusive organization in the early ’60s, but the old guard pushed back, attempting to elect their members to the executive committee, complaining loudly about the heavy hand of the national organization interfering with membership decisions, and resorting to outright yelling and intimidation. The old guard even went so far as to propose a “loyalty oath” for the Sierra Club, an outlandish document claiming that the Sierra Club should consider conservation of “the American Way of Life” as a value on par with wilderness protection. The proposal was resoundingly defeated. 
While the Sierra Club now takes equity, inclusion, and justice as a central part of its work, it didn’t start out that way. In its early years, it celebrated white supremacists and eugenics advocates like Joseph LeConte, John Henry Boalt, and David Starr Jordan as leaders, at a time when the Club also supported removal of indigenous peoples from their lands to create national parks.. 
This article attempts to demonstrate how racist viewpoints were allowed to persist in the organization until proactive and disruptive actions were taken to bring about change. The story of Elizabeth Porter’s membership holds a lesson for all of us concerned with making the Angeles chapter a more just and equitable place: Change requires active efforts from Sierra Club members, both those who identify as white and as people of color  We’ve come a long way toward becoming a more inclusive and equitable organization, and I encourage you to read more about some of the Black leaders who have contributed so much to the Angeles chapter
But we must continue to work to transform ourselves into an organization centered on racial, environmental, and other forms of justice. The Chapter Executive Committee has committed to working for equity, inclusion and justice, and created an Equity Advisory Group in 2020 to advise these efforts. Leaders interested in further growth should explore the Growing for Change online course in Campfire Learning (contact staff to learn more).


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The history of prejudice and racism at Sierra Club is part of the nation's history, as is the notion of a "club" as an exclusive organization. Having to pass muster with a particular group included what church you worshipped at. What is not often known is that Sierra Club also excluded Jewish people. Most likely, the club didn't invite other religions as it preferred to be a homogenous white christian org.

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