What comes to mind when you hear the name Audubon? The magnificent images of Birds of America? The society that protects birds and other animals? Conservation? Natural sanctuaries? Or slaves, racism and stealing the skulls of indigenous peoples?
In 1896, a pair of upper-crust Bostonian ladies founded the Massachusetts Audubon Society in a bid to outlaw feather hats. They named the group after John James Audubon, the fine artist and bird collector whose paintings and books influenced Charles Darwin and sparked public protections of animals, helping birth the modern conservation movement. (The national wing formed in 1905.)
For decades, the society has quietly protected birds, wildlands, and parks without getting anyone’s beak out of joint. But lately, members of this organization have got their feathers ruffled over a very human issue: race.
The Audubon Societies, national, state and local, have been largely appreciated and uncontroversial,** No more.
The problem is Audubon himself, who lived from 1785 to 1851, and owned at least nine black slaves who worked the family home in Henderson, Kentucky. “He also used enslaved people as assistants in the field while he was shooting birds to collect specimens,” adds Gregory Nobles, a biographer who says Audubon was dismissive of the abolition movement and frequently hunted in the South. “At one point, Audubon took two enslaved men down the Mississippi to New Orleans and sold them. I don’t know how you can spend so much time in close quarters with people and then sell both the boat and the men.”
Records show Audubon also robbed Native American graves and collected human skulls.
As a result of searching for wrongs committed by John James Audubon and finding them, some chapters of the Audubon Society have decided to change their name rather than be associated with this newly uncovered racist. The national formed a committee to determine whether to change the name, and it recommended that it do so. The board of directors, however, decided against it.
“He was a racist, a slave owner, he desecrated Indian burial sites,” Erin Giese, one of the board members who quit, told me.
Local groups made their own choice and some chose to shed the Audubon name.
At the same time, members at Audubon’s more than 450 chapters and groups did their own soul-searching. Over the past year, at least eight have voted to change their names: New York, Chicago, Seattle, Detroit, San Francisco, Portland in Oregon, Madison in Wisconsin, and the Audubon Naturalist Society in Maryland (which is completely independent). Last October, the Naturalist Society rechristened itself Nature Forward, and in March, Seattle Audubon became Birds Connect Seattle, but the other six are still unsure what to call themselves. (While these local groups operate mostly independently and raise their own money, many also receive some funds from the national organization, in addition to sharing its name.)
The rationale for change was obvious. Under the standards today, Audubon was clearly a racist. Forget about his contributions to conservation because he was a slaver at a time when it was not unusual. But that was then and this is now?
Almdale, in Los Angeles, made it clear he was against the change both nationally and locally at his 800-strong Santa Monica Bay Audubon Society, posting about name changes on his chapter’s blog. His local club didn’t even take the debate to a vote, he told me.
“We decided not to judge Audubon by modern standards,” Almdale said.
He says the division isn’t red versus blue. It’s far-left versus center-left. And it’s more generational than racial.
There is little doubt that Audubon was a slave owner in addition to other conduct that would rightly be deemed outrageous today. But does this undermine the good things he did? Does the association of the name Audubon with conservation, and not racism, provide sufficient reason to preserve the brand rather than trash it with no good name to replace it?
It’s one thing to eliminate the honors bestowed upon people who fought for racism and slavery, like Nathan Bedford Forrest. but Audubon was a bird guy who, like so many of his contemporaries, also owned slaves. Was it necessary to search out reasons to destroy his legacy and wipe his name from the signs above bird sanctuaries that might not exist but for the work of John James Audubon?
*Tuesday Talk rules apply.
**Full disclosure. I’ve been involved with the Theordore Roosevelt Bird Sanctuary, the first National Audubon Society songbird sanctuary. Dr. SJ was on the board before it was taken over the Audubon New York, and my daughter was a volunteer caring for and handling birds of prey.