As an adolescent who came of age during the tumultuous U.S. civil rights era, I set my sights on becoming a prison warden. Why? Because I watched haunting television images of people, Black like me, who were steadily being hauled off to jail.

Folks such as Angela Y. Davis and future Congressman John Lewis (1940-2020). Ditto for the Alabama children who, in 1963, braved snarling police dogs and searing blasts from fire hoses before being arrested. Their crime? Protesting segregation.

Then unaware of Blacks who worked as judges or lawyers, I decided that securing a job as a prison warden would be the best way to help the multitudes of Blacks who were being locked up for battling white supremacy. In my “child mind,” I imagined that as head of “the big house,” I could improve conditions for inmates at, say, Sing Sing or Folsom Prison (I knew that Johnny Cash had performed at the latter facility).

Half a century later, much of the racial anguish I suffered as a teenager — notably breaking the news to my mother about the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr. — has been assuaged by the progress (albeit constantly tested) of Blacks throughout the African diaspora. Then there’s the satisfaction I take in my self-appointed role as a “redwood tree whisperer.”

That’s right. I conferred the title upon myself during a recent sojourn in northern California where I was bedazzled by the towering Sequoia sempervirens in an upscale enclave better known for its artisan pizza than for its green-space.

Interestingly, I’d lived within walking distance of the same district when I worked as a reporter for the San Francisco Chronicle in the 1980s-90s (disquieting visits at a Massachusetts prison during college had soured me on a corrections career). But the redwoods? I’d not previously noticed their splendour.

Then one day during my recent stint in the neighbourhood, a panel became dislodged from the wooden fence that separated my residence from the property next door. Before retrieving the board, I peeped through the gap that had been revealed.

And therein I caught sight of a massive, reddish-brown trunk. I then looked up, up, up, and eventually cast my eyes upon a thick canopy of branches the top of which I could not discern. “Sweet Jesus,” I thought to myself. “This is amazing.”

Such was the thinking of Madison Grant, John Merriam, and Henry Osborn, co-founders of the California-based Save the Redwoods League who, in 1918, joined forces to stop the unrestricted toppling of the trees for timber. The largest trees on the planet, redwoods are protected by a thick, non-resinous bark that serves as a natural shield against fire, lightning strikes, marauding insects and fungi. 

Left in peace, an “average” redwood can live 800 to 1,500 years and reach the height of a 37-storey skyscraper. By contrast, Tower 2, the tallest of the Purdy’s Wharf buildings on Halifax Harbour boasts 22 storeys.

Enchanted by my close encounter with a redwood, I assumed that Grant, Merriam, and Osborn had taken a stand against loggers because of their reverence for the magnificent trees. Instead, I was stunned to discover that racism had prompted the trio to become forest conservationists.

Indeed, the men were staunch proponents of eugenics, the rightly debunked nineteenth century theory that humanity could be perfected through the targeted elimination of individuals whose race, class, or other characteristics rendered them “inferior” and thus, unfit to live.

In his 1916 book, The Passing of the Great Race, Madison Grant lamented what he believed to be the looming “disappearance” of a group he lauded as the pinnacle of civilization. White people.

“There can be little doubt that Grant identified the redwood trees with the Nordic race,” noted Jonathan Spiro in Defending The Master Race (2008), his biography of the man who hailed from European gentry. “It was … the Nordics, who in their day had conquered most of the Old World … making their last stand against the invading hordes of immigrants. And so too the redwoods … make their last stand against the invading hordes of loggers and developers.”

Adolph Hitler later praised Grant’s tome as his “Bible” — a release that helped give rise to the horrors that French filmmaker Alain Renais documented in Night and Fog (1956).

The author of Redwoods (1984), Jeremy Joan Hewes does readers a disservice with her failure to mention Grant’s predilections in her otherwise impressive, large format book. The photographs are spectacular.

But sidestepping the backstory, she writes: “Merriam, Osborn and Grant founded the League for the purpose of buying up choice redwood acreage and donating it as parks.”

Equipped with more knowledge about the initial “protectors” of Sequoia sempervirens, I now lean in to every redwood tree I encounter and whisper: “You are not a white man. You are not a white man.”  

As we mark African Heritage Month and fifty-five years after the murder of Dr. King in Memphis, it’s a message I’m also sending to five former Memphis police officers; bros who clearly forgot who they are.

Memo to Tadarrius Bean, Demetrius Haley, Desmond Mills, Jr., Emmitt Martin III and Justin Smith: “You are not white men.”

Evelyn C. White is the author of Alice Walker: A Life.

Evelyn C. White is a journalist and author whose books include Chain, Chain, Change: For Black Women in Abusive Relationships (Seal Press, 1985,) The Black Women’s Health Book: Speaking for Ourselves...

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