Mountains and Race (part 1)

Although mountains are among the most remote places on earth, they, too, have been a setting for the racial conflict that divides humans in every corner of the globe. That said, they have also been a source of liberation, whether literal, symbolic, or economic. Showcased here is a sampling of materials that can be used to study the complex relationship between race and outdoor recreation.


Hudson Stuck Expedition on Denali (1913)

Hudson Stuck Expedition on Denali, 1913,
in The Book of the National Parks (1926)
Rare Book Collection, E160 .Y25

The first person to set foot on the summit of Denali, the highest mountain in North America, was Walter Harper, a mixed-race Alaskan. Hudson Stuck, an Episcopal priest originally from England, was the expedition leader. After living for several years in Texas, where he spoke out against the poor treatment of African Americans, Stuck moved to Alaska in 1904 and opened a mission. The four books he published before his death in 1920 were partly intended to reveal the mistreatment of Alaskan natives.

In the preface to his Ascent of Denali (1914), Stuck also made what was perhaps the earliest plea for restoring the native name to the peak that most outsiders had come to know as Mt. McKinley.


Photo of John Tennant, in John C. Miles,
Koma Kulshan: The Story of Mt. Baker (2010)
Northwest Collection, F897 .W57 M55

In 1868, Edmund T. Coleman, an English artist, botanist, and librarian living in Victoria, British Columbia, led the first recorded ascent of Mt. Baker—or, as it was known to the indigenous peoples of the region, Koma Kulshan (“white sentinel”).

Coleman’s companions included John Tennant, one of the earliest settlers of Whatcom County, Washington. Born in the Ozark Mountains of Arkansas, Tennant’s mother was of Quapaw ancestry, and his wife, Clara, was a member of the local Lummi tribe.


The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth

The Life and Adventures of James P. Beckwourth (1858)
Mountaineering Collection, F592 .B39 

Born into slavery in Virginia around 1798, James Beckwourth was emancipated by his white father and headed west, where he roamed the Rockies and became one of the few African-American mountain men. 

Although not a mountaineer in the modern sense of the term, Beckwourth would have relied on similar techniques and knowledge to make his way through the mountains. He also aided others unfamiliar with the rugged terrain and developed a wagon trail, known as the Beckwourth Trail, through the Sierra Nevada to California.


Photo of Charles Crenchaw on Denali (1964), and photo of Denali by Crenchaw

Photo of Charles Crenchaw on Denali, 1964 (above)
and photo of Denali by Crenchaw (not shown)
From The Mountaineer (vol. 58, no. 4)
Mountaineering Collection, F886 .M92

“Weekend Climber,” in Ebony (November 1963)
Western Libraries Electronic Database

Charles Crenchaw became the first African American to summit Denali, North America’s highest peak, on July 9, 1964. The Arkansas native and former engineer for the Tuskegee Airmen did not let the racial barriers of his day discourage him from pursuing a career in engineering, and after graduating from the University of Chicago, he landed a job with Boeing in Seattle. In 1961, Crenchaw joined the Seattle Mountaineers and climbed most of the major peaks in the Cascades.


Mountains of the Mind

Charles Crenchaw’s summit of Denali came less than a year after Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech, which used mountains’ symbolic power to highlight African Americans’ struggle for civil rights. 

I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted,
and every hill and mountain shall be made low. 

And this will be the day – this will be the day when all
of God's children will be able to sing with new meaning: 

My country ‘tis of thee, sweet land of liberty, of thee I sing.
Land where my fathers died, land of the Pilgrim’s pride, 
From every mountainside, let freedom ring!

And if America is to be a great nation, this must become true.
And so let freedom ring from the prodigious hilltops of New Hampshire.
Let freedom ring from the mighty mountains of New York.
Let freedom ring from the heightening Alleghenies of Pennsylvania.
Let freedom ring from the snow-capped Rockies of Colorado.
Let freedom ring from the curvaceous slopes of California.

But not only that:

Let freedom ring from Stone Mountain of Georgia.
Let freedom ring from Lookout Mountain of Tennessee.
Let freedom ring from every hill and molehill of Mississippi.
From every mountainside, let freedom ring.

In King’s final speech, delivered the day before his assassination, he again evoked images of mountains, preaching of having “been to the mountaintop” and looked over into the Promised Land.  


The Epic of Mount Everest

Sir Francis Younghusband, The Epic of Mount Everest (1926)
Mountaineering Collection, DS495.8 .E9 Y68

For more than a century, Sherpa porters have risked life and limb to help climbers reach the top of Himalayan peaks. As a recent article in Outside Online points out, with a 1.2% mortality rate, “There’s no other service industry in the world that so frequently kills and maims its workers for the benefit of paying clients.”

Although the impact of mountaineering on Sherpa communities has begun to receive more attention in the Western media, it is still not widely understood. In 2014, the standard death insurance payment that families receive rose from $4,600 to $10,000—a large sum in Nepal, but not worth the human sacrifice. The permanently disabled, too, experience hardship, along with their families, raising further questions about the ethics of hiring others to do the most dangerous work of mountaineering, especially when safer options for earning a living are so few.



Delia Goetz, Mountains (1962)
Special Collections Children’s Collection, GB512 .G63

Historical children’s books provide insight into how cultural values have been passed from one generation to another. Shown here is a book from the 1960s that takes a more egalitarian approach to mountaineering than earlier works.

The author pays tribute to Sherpa porters and Tenzing Norgay, the Nepalese climber who, with Edmund Hillary, was one of the first two individuals to reach the summit of Mount Everest. Norgay, however, was never as honored in the West as was Hillary.