National Audubon Society will keep its name despite ties to slavery
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National Audubon Society will keep its name despite ties to slavery
The National Audubon Society’s headquarters in New York, on March 26, 2008. The bird conservation group said it would “reckon with the racist legacy of John James Audubon,” a naturalist and illustrator who was an enslaver, but voted to keep the namesake. (Hiroko Masuike/The New York Times)

by Jesus Jiménez

NEW YORK, NY.- The National Audubon Society announced Wednesday that its board of directors had voted to retain the organization’s name despite pressure to end its association with John James Audubon, the 19th-century naturalist and illustrator who enslaved people, drawing backlash from fellow bird groups that have already changed their names.

The bird conservation group said its decision came after more than a yearlong process that included input from hundreds of its members, volunteers and donors. Despite Audubon’s history as an enslaver with racist views toward Black and Indigenous people, Elizabeth Gray, the CEO of the National Audubon Society, said in a statement Wednesday that the board of directors “decided that the organization transcends one person’s name.”

She added that the name Audubon had “come to symbolize our mission and significant achievements that this organization has made in its long history.”

The decision to keep the name bucks a recent trend of social reckoning that had led to renaming schools and streets, and the removal of statues to sever associations with people with racist histories, including fellow bird conservation groups that have recently dropped Audubon from their names.

The National Audubon Society’s decision faced sharp criticism Wednesday from other birding groups across the country, including its own staff in the Bird Union.

“Their decision to double down on celebrating a white supremacist and to continue to brand our good work with his name actively inflicts harm on marginalized communities,” the Bird Union said in a statement Wednesday.

The Bird Union changed its name last month to drop its association with Audubon, and it called on the National Audubon Society to do the same.

“We will not elevate and celebrate a person who would reject and oppress our union members today,” the Bird Union said when it announced its new name. “Changing our name is a small step to demonstrate our commitment to antiracism.”

A number of local chapters of the National Audubon Society have changed their names over the past couple of years, including in Seattle and Chicago, and other groups across the country.

Lisa Alexander, the executive director of Nature Forward, said her organization decided in October to change its name from Audubon Naturalist Society, after taking a “a deep-dive look” at its name.

“We don’t really want to be affiliated with John James Audubon’s history,” Alexander said in an interview Wednesday. “For us, it just felt like the name change was a signal to our community that all people are welcome.”

The board of directors of Seattle’s chapter of the society unanimously passed the resolution in July to drop Audubon from its name, without a deadline or ideas for a new name. Atop the chapter’s website, the name Audubon is crossed out below the word Seattle, which is beside an image of a green bird with a paintbrush in its beak.

The Seattle chapter said in a statement Tuesday that it was “shocked, confused, and deeply disappointed” by the national organization’s decision to keep the name.

“The name is a barrier imposed upon historically excluded communities that suffer the impacts of environmental calamities first and disproportionately,” the Seattle chapter said. “We choose differently. We choose the antiracist path.”

A year before changing its name, the Seattle chapter called on the National Audubon Society to begin “an inclusive and transparent process toward removing John James Audubon” from their shared namesake.

National Audubon Society, which was founded in 1905, was named after Audubon more than 50 years after his death. Audubon was known for his remarkable illustrations of hundreds of birds. Some were simple but detailed, like an 1820 drawing of a hermit thrush perched on a branch. Others depict dramatic action, like an 1829 painting of a osprey clutching a weakfish in its talons as it flies through the air.

But, in addition to his illustrations, Audubon also wrote about his dismissal of the abolitionist movement, according to the National Audubon Society.

After Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act, which did away with slavery in most of its colonies, Audubon wrote to his wife in 1834 that the British government had “acted imprudently and too precipitously,” according to the National Audubon Society.

In a short story that Audubon wrote, titled “The Runaway,” he tells of meeting an escaped enslaved family in a swamp. After spending a night with them, Audubon said he took them back to the person they had escaped from so they could be enslaved again. It’s unclear whether the story was true or fictional, according to the McClung Museum of Natural History & Culture in Knoxville, Tennessee.

“We should acknowledge that his artwork was a catalyst for bird conservation in this nation,” Alexander said. “He did beautiful paintings of birds and that drew a lot of people into wanting to protect birds.

“But he was also an enslaver and a published white supremacist,” she added.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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