Audubon faces backlash for keeping name that evokes racist slaver: NPR

John James Audubon inspired the generation with his birds of america compendium. But his legacy also includes racist views and owning and selling enslaved people – calling for the National Audubon Society to change its name.

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Archives Hulton/Getty Images

John James Audubon inspired the generation with his birds of america compendium. But his legacy also includes racist views and owning and selling enslaved people – calling for the National Audubon Society to change its name.

Archives Hulton/Getty Images

Famous naturalist John James Audubon “did despicable things” and supported his work by buying and selling slaves – and that’s according to the organization that bears his name. But the National Audubon Society’s board of directors rejected the idea of ​​a name change this week, triggering resignations amid plans by local groups to rename themselves anyway.

This week’s vote focused on whether the nonprofit should decide whether to keep Audubon’s name or change it. No new name was considered as a possible alternative.

The organization cited two main reasons for keeping Audubon’s name: he grapples with the critical challenge facing birds and other wildlife due to climate change and other pressures; and he believes the name of the group, founded some 50 years after Audubon’s death, “has come to represent much more than the work of one person”.

Still, he added, “we have to take into account the racist legacy”.

3 directors have resigned

The debate over how to address that legacy appears to have divided people at its highest levels: In an email to NPR, the company confirmed that board members quit after the name decision.

Although the NAS has not named the members individually, an executive page on the group’s website currently does not contain the names of three board directors who were listed earlier this month: Sara Fuentes , Erin Giese and Stephen Tan, who served as Vice President.

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 organization was “disappointed to lose these trustees and the wisdom and dedication they brought.” She cited the “diverse and reasoned perspectives that these directors — and others — have brought to this difficult conversation for our organization.”

Local groups nix Audubon’s name

Those who criticize the continued use of the Audubon name include leaders of the DC Audubon Society a nation’s capital chapter moving forward with a plan to rebrand itself.

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

Some of this division was seen on the national body’s Facebook page, where commenters debated how the group’s history should fit into the reckoning of America’s racist legacy that has taken place these last years.

“This is a missed opportunity to move away from an exclusive white male club shotgun birdwatching image,” wrote one commenter, “to something more appropriate for the times we live in. “

A patchwork of conservation groups bear the Audubon name across the United States; some are local affiliates of the national society, while others are independent. So far, at least five groups have dropped the Audubon name or are in the process of doing so.

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

The historical review is not kind to Audubon, the man

The NAS board decided not to change its name more than a year after saying it would consider dropping its longtime eponym. Its review process was “robust and inclusive”, the group said, adding that more than 2,300 people provided input. The process, the NAS said, focused on “reaching people of color and youth.”

The NAS commissioned a historical review of Audubon’s life and opinions. The image that came back was not flattering. Even before that assessment, the NAS had published articles portraying Audubon as an influential nature painter, promoter and cataloger — and someone whose views of black and Indigenous people were deeply rooted in racism.

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

The biography page unrolls a list of transgressions, ranging from Audubon’s repeated buying and selling of enslaved people to his criticisms of emancipation and allegations of plagiarism. Audubon also lied about his own heritage: his mother was French or Haitian Creole, despite his claim that she was a wealthy Spaniard, as a 2021 article notes.

In a 2020 contribution to Audubon magazine, biographer Gregory Nobles provided more details:

“Early in 1819, for example, Audubon took two slaves with him down the Mississippi to New Orleans on a skiff, and when he got there he put the boat and the men up for sale. The Audubons then acquired several other slaves in the 1820s, but sold them again in 1830, when they settled in England, where Audubon oversaw the production of what he called his “Great Work”, The birds of Americathe huge four-volume compendium of avian art that made him famous.”


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