NAACP member J. E. Spingarn and the Clematis collection at Troutbeck

By Kenneth Reginald Otero-Walker

Feb 18 2023

Joel Elias Spingarn (May 17, 1875 - July 26, 1939) was a National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) member of Jewish American descent. Spingarn was a strong supporter of the radical ideas proposed by W. E. B. Du Bois. A professor of comparative literature at Columbia University, Spingarn was ostracized by acting president of the university Nicholas Murray Butler. Butler dismantled the comparative literature department by merging it with the English department and Spingarn was removed from his position without explanation.

An avid gardener and horticulturalist, he began devoting more energy to these efforts, and following classes with NYBG founder and Columbia colleague Nathaniel Lord Britton, he would become a leading authority on the genus Clematis. Over the later part of his life, Spingarn would amass a large collection of living specimens at Troutbeck, his estate in Amenia, NY.

Troutbeck had already been the subject of writings by naturalist such as John Burroughs, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau during the previous ownership of the Benton family. Under Spingarn's ownership, the estate was visited by and described by civil rights leaders such as W. E. B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King Jr., and Thurgood Marshall.

In his will, Spingarn established the Spingarn Medal, which is awarded annually by the NAACP to celebrate African American achievement.

Here are a few collections of Clematis, including the type of Clematis troutbeckiana Spingarn, which were collected at the Troutbeck estate.