It Happened at Michigan — ‘Like life without food’


Theodore Roosevelt Speigner was a trailblazer in more than one way.

He was the first Black man elected to the school board in Durham, North Carolina. He was the second African American man ordained by the American Lutheran Church.

About this feature

“It Happened at Michigan” is a new Record feature highlighting the people and activities at U-M that have made a mark on the world over the years.

And, bolstered by a pioneering U-M doctorate, he was an advocate of teaching conservation well before the environmental movement of the 1970s took hold.

Speigner was a proponent of what was called “resource-use education,” or conservation education. Start in first grade, he argued, by showing young people animals, flowers and the overall beauty of nature. Build upon those early years of conservation education with “field trips and tours to fish pools, flower gardens, rock quarries, bird sanctuaries, and other local places.

“A good conservation program should emphasize the fact that all knowledge is not found between the two backs of the textbook and the four walls of the classroom,” Speigner said. “It will become clearer to both teacher and pupil that the campus, woodlot, watershed, farm, or forest, offers wonderful opportunities as a laboratory for learning.”

A photo of Theodore Speigner looking at papers when he was elected to the Durham, North Carolina, school board.
In the late 1960s, Durham, North Carolina, voters elected Theodore Speigner to the school board. (Messenger yearbook, Durham High School 1969)

Speigner made his arguments in his U-M dissertation, leading to a Ph.D. in 1961. He was the first African American man in the country to earn a doctorate in conservation.

Born in Alabama in 1906 during the presidency of Teddy Roosevelt, Speigner was a longtime educator. Educated at Talladega College and the University of Iowa, he led a Lutheran school in Talladega before joining North Carolina College in 1947 as a history professor.

Speigner said the natural world was under siege by technology, population growth and human misuse. Educators at all levels had a responsibility to heighten environmental awareness, including instilling a sense of personal accountability.

He pursued his graduate work while a professor of geography and conservation at North Carolina College, a school created to educate African American teachers. In 1960, he established the Department of Geography. Today, as North Carolina Central University, the program is the nation’s leading producer of Black geographers.

U-M’s Department of Conservation was housed in the Kraus Natural Science Building when Speigner was a graduate student. (Bentley Historical Library)
U-M’s Department of Conservation was housed in the Kraus Natural Science Building when Speigner was a graduate student. (Bentley Historical Library)

Speigner was 54 when he graduated from U-M’s Department of Conservation in what is known today as the School for Environment and Sustainability.

“A state that has no program of conservation,” he said, “is like life without food; it is doomed to die, and yet a state with good conservation program can live and its inhabitants can enjoy the best things of life.”



  1. Betsy Williams
    on August 31, 2023 at 9:48 am

    Thank you for this new series!
    I very much appreciate the in-depth articles at the U-M Heritage Project ( and will look forward to future Record articles on It Happened at Michigan.

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