Change the name? Audubon’s beautiful birds don’t erase his racist life

Change the name? Audubon’s beautiful birds don’t erase his racist life

Multiple organizations around the country have dropped Audubon’s name over his history as a slave owner.

By Ross Cristantiello

What’s in a name? That’s the question facing Mass Audubon, one of New England’s most prominent conservation organizations.

The 19th-century artist and ornithologist John James Audubon was a slaveholder. While this is not new information, an ongoing national reckoning with the American slave trade and its still-prominent legacy has prompted some organizations to drop Audubon’s name.

“We currently have no plans to change the organization’s name but reserve the right to revisit it in the future,” Michael P. O’Connor, a spokesman for Mass Audubon, told The Boston Globe.

Audubon is best known for “Birds of America.” The collection, which contains 435 life-size watercolors of North American birds, was the product of years of traveling North America in a quest to document the continent’s avian life. Since “Birds of America” was finished in 1838, Audubon’s name has become synonymous with the documentation and preservation of birds. In time, this association grew to encompass many forms of nature conservancy.

Today, the National Audubon Society operates nearly 500 local chapters throughout the country. Even more organizations bear Audubon’s name, including Mass Audubon, which is independent from the national nonprofit.

Earlier this month, National Audubon Society’s Seattle Chapter became the group’s first large chapter to publicly remove “Audubon” from its name.

“The shameful legacy of the real John James Audubon, not the mythologized version, is antithetical to the mission of this organization and its values,” said Claire Catania, Executive Director of the Seattle chapter in a statement. “Our members, volunteers, and staff are focused on a future where the perspectives and contributions of all people are valued—especially those who have been systemically excluded. The challenges facing humans and birds alike demand that we build a radically inclusive coalition to address them.”

Last October the Audubon Naturalist Society, an environmental conservation group based in the Washington, D.C. area, also announced plans to change its name. The move was the latest in a process that began in 2010, leadership wrote on the group’s website. Last September, a nonprofit in Sequim, Wash. formerly known as the Dungeness River Audubon Center became the Dungeness River Nature Center.

Audubon periodically bought and sold slaves throughout the early part of the 19th century, according to an article written by Gregory Nobles, a history professor emeritus at Georgia Tech and Audubon biographer. Audubon and his wife owned nine enslaved people while living in Kentucky, but financial difficulties forced the couple to sell. They bought more enslaved people during the 1820s, according to Nobles, and once again sold them before moving to England.

Even after the move, and as the abolitionist movement gained momentum in America and England, Audubon supported slavery. In an 1834 letter to his wife, Audubon wrote that the British government had “acted imprudently and too precipitously” when it freed enslaved people in its West Indian colonies, according to Noble.

The argument that Audubon was a “man of his time,” Noble writes, is not valid because many in that era vocally opposed the slave trade.

Ironically, Mass Audubon was founded in 1896 by two women who came from a family of abolitionists, according to a post from President David O’Neill in 2020. Harriet Hemenway and Minna Hall formed Mass Audubon after becoming outraged at the cruel treatment of birds for fashion purposes. At the time, Audubon was 45 years gone but still seen as an important figure in nature conservation.

“Other than in name, John James Audubon had no connection to Mass Audubon’s founding. Yet, we are bound to him and his legacy as a slaveholder,” O’Neill wrote. “We at Mass Audubon believe nature and the outdoors are for everyone. As part of our commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, we, along with National Audubon Society and other independent Audubon Societies, are embarking on our own historical reckoning, fully examining our history, including our role in maintaining inequity.”

Mass Audubon is working to become more socially inclusive and active, O’Connor told the Globe. This work includes diversifying its board of directors, exploring the impact of climate change to vulnerable communities, launching a fellowship for underrepresented minorities working in conservation, and restoring greenspaces among communities that have limited access to nature.

“[Mass Audubon is] focused on the important work of becoming an inclusive, equitable, and belonging institution by listening carefully to our members, centering marginalized voices in our work, and taking meaningful actions,” O’Connor told the Globe.

‘No plans’ for a name change at Mass Audubon

 

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