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Connecting the Dots: Muir Woods Hidden Figures

Muir Woods National Monument is a national treasure. It is an old growth forest with incredible ecological diversity and history. Visitors can enjoy the natural setting by taking a walk on the boardwalk, hiking through the forest and listening to the animals that call Muir Woods home. They can also learn about the people who helped ensure this place became a unit of the National Park Service. As it relates to Muir Woods early history, much focus has been around three key points:

  1. Politician, William Kent donated Muir Woods to the federal government and on January 9, 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt made it a National Monument.

  2. In the 1930's, President Franklin D. Roosevelt created the Civilian Conservation Corps which worked on much of the infrastructure found at Muir Woods today.

  3. On May 19, 1945, the United Nations (U.N.) held a memorial service at Muir Woods for the President and chief architect of the U.N., Franklin D. Roosevelt.


All the key points above are true, but they focus on a perspective of history that solely represents the dominant social group. When we start digging deeper we find that these three major landmarks in Muir Woods history are all connected through women. Many of these women are now viewed by the LGBTQ+ community as some of their own. There is a historical network that connects all these events. The histories of Muir Woods show how change is not created by isolated incidents but by relationships and movements.

Main Story #1 - The Founding of Muir Woods National Monument

Jane Addams sitting with children at the Hull House.
Jane Addams sitting with children at the Hull House. National Archives.

The ancestral land of the Coast Miwok People that is now known as Muir Woods National Monument was once briefly owned by William Kent and Elizabeth Kent. They were strong conservationists and advocated for women's suffrage. But, William Kent was a documented racist, particularly against Asian and African Americans. When serving in Congress, Kent pushed many discriminatory policies. He once said, “I have been writing and talking about the necessity of keeping this a white man’s country for the last 30 years.” Many of the Kents’ friends tried to push them towards more inclusive viewpoints. One of these friends was Jane Addams.

Jane Addams was a reformer, a pacifist, and a suffragist. She created the Hull House in Chicago with her partner Ellen Gates Starr. The Hull House was a settlement house, a safe place for new immigrants to stay and flourish. She was a prominent voice in the Progressive Era and spoke, like the Kents, in support of suffrage. Addams and her new life partner Mary Rozet Smith ran the Hull House together for 30 years. This was Addam’s most proud endeavor. Her influence and reach as an advocate for all people earned her a Nobel Peace Prize in 1931.

Jane Addams and William Kent had a long friendship. Kent said of Jane Addams after their first interaction that, “I well recall her advent and surprise that came to me when she ... talked on the Hull House work, and the benefits that accrued to her and her colleagues from an association with the people of the neighborhood. It seemed so strange to place this mission on the basis of mutual benefit that it took long to percolate through my mind. My admiration and respect made me think diligently, and I seemingly blundered upon the basis of her theory and practice of democracy.” 1

Mary Rozet Smith and Jane Addams (c. 1896)
Mary Rozet Smith and Jane Addams (c. 1896). Swarthmore Peace Collection, Swarthmore College.

Jane Addams influenced Kent to donate land he owned in Chicago to create the city's first public playground in 1894. It was not only a first for Chicago, but may have been the first public playground in the country. In a letter to Kent she wrote: “It seems very absurd to thank you for the use of the playground after all these years but we really have been very grateful and it has brought untold pleasure to thousands of children and young people.” This donation was the first of many, as the Kents’ remained commited to conservation and later donated Muir Woods in 1908.

Investigative journalist, civil rights activist, and educator: Ida B. Wells, was also a friend of Jane Addams. Ida B. Wells and the National Association of Colored Women had a formal gathering at the Hull House in the summer of 1899, where they met for the first time. Wells' activism and anti-lynching campaigns greatly inspired Addams. At a meeting that Wells organized, after the mob-killing of an innocent Black man in Kentucky, Addams said that lynch mobs: “further run a certain risk of brutalizing each spectator, of shaking his belief in law and order, of sowing seed for future violence.”2 This was her first time speaking out against racial injustice. She later wrote Respect for the Law, which condemned mob violence and how it undermined due process but in doing so, Addams predicated that African Americans might be guilty of the crimes white mobs accused them of. Disappointed, Wells, replied in The Independent that Addams was correct in her stance on lynching but greatly incorrect in her "unfortunate presumption" of lynching victims.3 Born into slavery, and raised in Mississippi, Wells understood the depths of racism in a way Kent and Addams did not. Despite their differences, Wells and Addams, remained allies. Both advocated against school segregation in Chicago and become founding members of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in 1909. For the rest of her life Addams remained consistant in her calls for racial equity.

Rose Schneiderman seated between Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt and David Dubinsky
Rose Schneiderman seated between Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt and David Dubinsky. Rubinstein, H., photographer. Library of Congress.

In addition to William Kent and Ida B. Wells, Jane Addams formed another friendship with someone who would become a political leader. That was Frances Perkins. Frances Perkins grew up with a wealthy family and moved to Chicago to become a teacher. Instead she became very involved with Jane Addams and the Hull House. This gave Perkins her first glimpse into the influence that women could have on human rights. Settlement houses like the Hull House would be the beginning of the field of social work. Perkins’ work at the Hull House inspired her to work with people facing poverty and unemployment.

Frances Perkins said, “I had to do something about unnecessary hazards to life, unnecessary poverty. It was sort of up to me. This feeling … sprang out of a period of great philosophical confusion which overtakes all young people.”

Frances Perkins moved to New York City in 1909. She saw the horrible working conditions factory workers faced in the garment district. This is when Frances Perkins joined the Labor Movement. There she met another prominent labor activist, Rose Schneiderman. Rose Schneiderman was a Jewish immigrant from Poland. She worked in garment factories and fought for her rights, safe working conditions, and fair pay. Schneiderman and Perkins worked together in the Labor Movement. Their activism caught the eye of another progressive woman and NAACP member, who had an influence in politics: Eleanor Roosevelt. The three women became lifelong friends. These professional relationships lead us to Muir Woods main story number 2.

Frances Perkins (third from left) during the presidential signing of the Social Security Act (1935)
Frances Perkins (third from right) during the presidential signing of the Social Security Act (1935). Library of Congress.

Main Story #2 - The Civilian Conservation Corps

Governor Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed both Perkins and Schneiderman to governmental positions in New York State. When Franklin D. Roosevelt became President, he made Frances Perkins the secretary of the Department of Labor. This made her the first woman to hold a cabinet position. She lived in Washington DC. with Representative Carolyn O'Day. Franklin D. Roosevelt appointed Rose Schneiderman to the Labor Advisory Board of the National Recovery Administration. She was the only woman appointed. Schneiderman had a long standing relationship with fellow labor activist Maud O'Farrell Swartzoth. Schneiderman and Swartzoth would often do political work with the Roosevelts. Rose Schneiderman worked closely with both the First Lady and the President. She gave an important perspective on the importance of labor rights, equal wages for women, and the right to form a union. Rose Schneiderman was instrumental in creating the New Deal and many important programs such as the National Labor Relations Act, the Social Security Act, and the Fair Labor Standards Act.

Muir Woods CCC men placing large boulders along Redwood Creek, 1934.
Muir Woods CCC men placing large boulders along Redwood Creek, 1934. National Park Service Records and Archives.
Frances Perkins was a leader in creating the Civilian Conservation Corps.

She said, “ It was extremely well- conducted. It made, out of what could have been a dreadful flop and a dreadful hazard, a project that was intelligent, well-behaved, and therefore is well thought of in the community. We did it by getting the Army to run it, the Forest Service to direct its work. We kept them in order and the Forest Service selected good projects. Although it was an expensive form of relief, it accomplished a good deal and was invaluable in the training of young men.” 3

The work of the New Deal and the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) put many people back to work. This created infrastructure in many national parks, including Muir Woods. Frances Perkins said of the CCC, “We expect these men in the reforestation camps to become leaders of their generation when they return to their homes. We expect that they will prepare themselves for such leadership.”

First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visiting Camp Tera at Bear Mountain, New York
First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt visiting Camp TERA at Bear Mountain, New York. Bettmann Archive

On March 23rd, 1933 Perkins made her first appearance before a congressional committee to argue that the CCC should be passed as a relief program instead of a job program. She said that a congressman, “had also said after I testified on the CCC Bill that I’d made a good appearance, but he’d hate to be married to me.” The bill was passed and approved by the president less than two weeks later.

There was another very important person at that congressional committee meeting. Perkins’ good friend First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt accompanied her. Eleanor Roosevelt was incredibly supportive of the Civilian Conservation Corps, but there was one thing she did not like about the program: it was only open to men. Eleanor Roosevelt came up with the idea for the FERA Camps or the Federal Emergency Relief Association. These would later be called SheSheShe Camps. It was a federal relief program that employed women in land management and conservation jobs. There was great resistance to the program, but Frances Perkins and Eleanor Roosevelt worked together to set up the program in 1936.

Activisit and Lawyer, Pauli Murray worked at Camp TERA and said of the experience: “The camp was ideal for building up run-down bodies and renewing jaded spirits.” 4

Eleanor Roosevelt was a fervent social leader. As a young adult she worked in social work and the settlement house movement. Her husband’s political career started to advance, going from Governor to President, and she raised six children. Even during this time she was still active in the political movements in New York. The Roosevelt’s political partnership was the foundation of their marriage. Surviving correspondence suggests that Eleanor Roosevelt had a long relationship with journalist Lorena Hickock. During Franklin D. Roosevelt's presidency, WWII started. Eleanor Roosevelt was very active as first lady during this time. A national member of the NAACP, she actively opposed lynchings and supported racial justice amongst the armed forces. She famously flew in a plane with the Tuskegee Airmen to counter the view that Black soldiers could not fly. She also advocated for peace. The political work of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt leads us to Muir Woods main story number 3.

View of memorial service for President Roosevelt nestled in among the redwood grove. (c. 1945)
View of memorial service for President Roosevelt nestled in among the redwood grove (1945). Save the Redwoods League.

Main Story #3 - The UN Hosts FDR Memorial at Muir Woods

The end of World War II was approaching. Franklin D. Roosevelt created the name ‘The United Nations’ and worked on creating the organization to further international diplomacy. His administration planned a conference of delegates in San Francisco to initiate the organization. Two weeks before the conference, President Franklin D. Roosevelt passed away from a stroke. Despite this huge loss, the event continued as planned, as he wished. On May 19, 1945 over 500 delegates from over 46 nations came to Muir Woods to honor the fallen president. The Secretary of State said:

“These great redwoods at Muir Woods National Monument are the most enduring of all trees. Many of them stood here centuries after every man now living is dead. They are as timeless and as strong as the ideals and faith of Franklin D. Roosevelt.”

Continuing his legacy -- less than a year later, Eleanor Roosevelt became a United States delegate to the first United Nations (UN) General Assembly. Eleanor Roosevelt went into her work as a delegate with progressive viewpoints and determination. For instance, at the Southern Conference on Human Welfare, she refused to stay in segregated seating and sat in the middle of the aisle.5 Progressive as she was, Eleanor Roosevelt sought out the insight of other progressive people. One was Dr. Pauli Murray.

Black and White picture of Pauli Murray smiling
Black and white portrait photograph of Pauli Murray smiling. Pauli Murray Papers. Schlesinger Library, Radcliffe Institute, Harvard University.

Pauli Murray first met Eleanor Roosevelt while Murray was working with the New Deal’s Federal Relief Association at Camp TERA. Murray refused to stand to honor Eleanor Roosevelt when she visited because of President Roosevelt’s discriminatory policies towards African Americans. Murray went on to write a letter to The President and First Lady in 1938 about the challenges African Americans faced as assistance programs faded and segregation continued. To Murray's surprise, Eleanor Roosevelt wrote back. This was the beginning of their impactful friendship. The pair wrote letters for over 25 years.

Pauli Murray was a civil rights activist and lawyer. Born in Baltimore and raised in North Carolina. After graduating from Howard University School of Law, Murray was rejected from Harvard Law School based on gender. Murray instead received a Masters in Law from Berkeley Law and was the first African American to become a Doctor of the Science of Law from Yale Law School, the school's most advance law degree. In 1951, Murray wrote States’ Laws on Race and Color, an extensive collection of the state laws and ordinances that sanctioned racial segregation in the 1950s. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marhsall would call this work the "bible" for lawyers working on civil rights cases. In 1961, Murray worked on the President’s Commission on the Status of Women' civil and political rights committee and developed a new technique for contesting discrimination based on gender using the Fourteenth Amendment. This work lead to Murray's input to have “sex” included in the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and becoming an honorary co-author on Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg's 1971 Equal Protection case, Reed vs. Reed.

Pauli Murray pushed Eleanor Roosevelt to be more progressive and was honest with her about the discrimination African Americans were facing. Murray visited Eleanor Roosevelt often. Arrested and hospitalized many times for homosexuality and gender nonconformity, Murray, often brought female partners to meet Mrs. Roosevelt during their visits. Pauli Murray eventually had a long relationship with Irene Barlow. Roosevelt said of Murray, “One of my finest young friends is a charming woman lawyer–Pauli Murray, who has been quite a firebrand at times but of whom I am very fond.” Pauli Murray said of Roosevelt:

“For me, becoming friends with Mrs. Roosevelt was a slow, painful process, marked by sharp exchanges of correspondence, often anger on my side and exasperation on her side, and a gradual development of mutual admiration and respect.” Murray also said, “The measure of her greatness was her capacity for growth, her ruthless honesty with herself, and the generosity with which she responded to criticisms.” 6

Eleanor Roosevelt holds the Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Eleanor Roosevelt holds the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. National Archives.

Pauli Murray’s influence on Eleanor Roosevelt gave the first lady a more open-minded perspective. Murray’s activism helped shape Roosevelt's understanding of domestic and international politics. In 1946, Eleanor joined the U.N. Human Rights Commission. She helped to draft the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. When it was announced she said:

“Where, after all, do universal human rights begin? In small places, close to home – so close and so small that they cannot be seen on any maps of the world. Yet they are the world of the individual person; the neighborhood he lives in; the school or college he attends; the factory, farm or office where he works. Such are the places where every man, woman and child seeks equal justice, equal opportunity, equal dignity without discrimination. Unless these rights have meaning there, they have little meaning anywhere. Without concerned citizen action to uphold them close to home, we shall look in vain for progress in the larger world.”7

The National Park Service takes inspiration from this idea. National parks are spaces where every person can feel safe and equal.


We can see how the legacy of these women and LGBTQ+ leaders connect to Muir Woods, and how Muir Woods connects to the history of this nation:

  1. Jane Addams' work in Chicago and beyond influenced William Kent's views on conservation and community.

  2. Frances Perkins and Rose Schneiderman helped create the New Deal and formed the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC).

  3. After her husband passed away, Eleanor Roosevelt -- influenced by Pauli Murray and others -- helped write a foundational text of the United Nations called the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Now that we see these connections, how does your own connection to this site change? What do these stories reveal about how we learn and connect to history?

Last updated: February 1, 2021