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Audubon is facing backlash after deciding to keep a name reminiscent of a racist slaver

Famed naturalist John James Audubon “did despicable things” and supported his work by buying and selling enslaved people — according to the organization that bears his name. But the board of the National Audubon Society dismissed the idea of ​​changing its name this week, sparking resignations amid plans by local groups to change their name anyway.

This week’s vote focused on whether the nonprofit should decide whether to keep or change Audubon’s name. No new names were considered as possible alternatives.

The organization cited two key reasons for keeping the Audubon name: it needs to address the critical challenge birds and other wildlife face due to climate change and other pressures; and it believes that the name of the group, formed some 50 years after Audubon’s death, “represents so much more than one person’s work”.

Still, it added: “We have to reckon with the racist legacy.”

3 board members have resigned

The debate over how to deal with this legacy appears to have divided people at the highest level: In an email to NPR, the society confirmed that board members had resigned following the naming decision.

While the NAS did not individually name the members, a leadership page on the group’s website is currently missing the names of three board members listed earlier this month: Sara Fuentes, Erin Giese and Stephen Tan, who served as vice chair.

The three former board members did not respond to NPR’s requests for comment.

In a message to NPR, National Audubon Society board chair Susan Bell said the board is “disappointed to lose these directors and the wisdom and dedication they brought with them.” She cited the “diverse and reasoned perspectives that these directors – and others – have brought to what has been a difficult conversation for our organization.”

Local groups nix the Audubon name

Among those who criticize the continued use of the Audubon name are leaders of the DC Audubon Society a chapter in the nation’s capital pushing a plan to rename itself.

“I find it disappointing but not surprising that the National Audubon Society has decided not to change its name,” chapter president Tykee James told NPR affiliate station WAMU/DCist. “They don’t listen to their local leaders and I think that will further divide the network.”

Part of that split was evident on the national body’s Facebook page, where commentators debated how the group’s story should fit into the reckoning of America’s racist legacy in recent years.

“It’s a missed opportunity to move away from an exclusive white male shotgun ornithology image,” wrote one commenter, “to something more appropriate to the times we live in.”

A patchwork of conservation groups goes by the name of Audubon in the US; some are local chapters affiliated with the national society, while others are independent. To date, at least five groups have dropped or are in the process of dropping the Audubon name.

The first to drop the name was the Audubon Naturalist Society, based outside of Washington, DC – it’s now called Nature Forward. Others planning similar moves include Seattle Audubon, Chicago Audubon, and Portland Audubon. In some cases, they have slashed the Audubon name where it appears on their websites.

Historical flashbacks are not kind to Audubon the man

The NAS board decided against a name change more than a year after announcing it was shelving its longtime namesake. The review process is “robust and comprehensive,” the group said, adding that more than 2,300 people had contributed. The process, the NAS said, emphasized “reaching people of color and younger people.”

The NAS commissioned a historical review of Audubon’s life and views. The image that came back was not a flattering one. Prior to this review, the NAS had published articles portraying Audubon as an influential painter, promoter, and cataloger of nature—and someone whose views of Black and Indigenous peoples were deeply rooted in racism.

“His contributions to ornithology, art, and culture are enormous, but he was a complex and disturbing character who did despicable things even by the standards of his time,” says the National Audubon Society on its main page about Audubon.

The bio page rolls up a list of transgressions, from Audubon’s repeated buying and selling of enslaved people to his criticism of emancipation and allegations of plagiarism. Audubon also lied about his own origins: his mother was French or Haitian Creole, despite his claims that she was a wealthy Spanish woman, a 2021 article notes.

In a 2020 post to Audubon Magazine, biographer Gregory Nobles filled in more details:

“In early 1819, for example, Audubon took two enslaved men on a boat down the Mississippi to New Orleans, and when he got there he offered the boat and men for sale. The Audubons then acquired several more enslaved people in the 1820s but sold them again in 1830 when they moved to England where Audubon oversaw the production of what he called his “great work”. The Birds of Americathe massive four-volume compendium of bird art that made him famous.”

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