In a statement, Claire Catania, the Seattle chapter’s executive director, said: “The shameful legacy of the real John James Audubon, not the mythologized version, is antithetical to the mission of this organization and its values.”
The move is part of a reckoning in ornithology, birding and the broader American conservation movement to address historic racism in its organizations and practices. Seattle Audubon said it will probably take six months to find a new name.
In recent months, conservation groups such as Audubon, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists and Environmental Defense Fund have grappled with national parks and monuments composed of land stolen from Native people and honorary bird names bestowed to men who were Indian grave robbers, enslavers and racists who in some instances compared Black people to orangutans.
Audubon, an accomplished illustrator of American birds, stands out as one of the most recognized names in conservation. He had been dead for about 45 years when in 1896, two Massachusetts women created a society started to protect endangered egrets. They named it in Audubon’s honor, with little regard to his more troubling past. Now, the organizations it spawned are weighing its entire history.
Both the Seattle organization and the national group have considered a name change for more than a year. Last year, Elizabeth Gray, then the interim chief executive of the National Audubon Society, said she was “deeply troubled” by the racist actions of Audubon but that the group had a lot to unpack when considering what to do about it.
The society is still unpacking. “The National Audubon Society is still in the process of a comprehensive exploration of John James Audubon and has not yet made a decision about our name,” Gray said in a statement Wednesday.
Gray acknowledged Seattle Audubon’s actions, describing the chapter as an independent organization whose work “we respect … as … they represent themselves to the community that they serve.”
But Seattle Audubon is not alone, said Glenn Nelson, the chapter’s community director.
After its board drafted a resolution last year asking the national society to reexamine its name in the interest of diversity and inclusion, it followed up with a letter recommending steps to take toward that end and a request to make the process more transparent. Three other chapters in Wisconsin, New York City and San Francisco signed the letter, Nelson said.
Another group, the Audubon Naturalist Society in Chevy Chase, is expected to complete its renaming process in October. Its executive director, Lisa Alexander, said last year that the society has considered a name change since 2010. In 2020, the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer pushed the issue to the top of the group’s agenda.
TheJan. 6, 2021, riot at the Capitol made the change an even bigger priority. “Did that accelerate the conversation?” Alexander said. “You betcha.”
Although Seattle Audubon’s resolution was unanimously approved, it came with a price, some of its leaders say. After the resolution was announced, one board member quit and asked that her biography be erased from the website. The official remains unnamed.
As the national organization weighs a name change, it has to consider potential blowback from chapters in Texas, Louisiana, Georgia and California where conservative members and donors are likely to be hostile to Seattle Audubon’s rationale for change.
Even in liberal Seattle, there was resistance during this week’s virtual call. While most members praised the move, saying they were proud to be a part of an organization that was taking such a bold step, a few strongly took issue with it.
“Do you have empirical evidence that … keeping the name of Audubon does substantial harm to the society? Are people of color boycotting us?” one member wrote in the chat.
Other than Nelson, who is Japanese American, there were no people of color actively participating in the discussion on the call. It was essentially White people talking to other White people in an organization that’s more than 90 percent White.
“I’m concerned about the dropping of Audubon’s name because historical figures should not be held to today’s standards,” another person wrote. “I think it’s tragic for the natural world.”
Audubon was an unabashed enslaver. When Britain emancipated enslaved people in the West Indies, he wrote to his wife in 1834 that the government “acted imprudently and too precipitously,” Gregory Nobles wrote in Audubon Magazine. It was not out of character for a man who 15 years earlier “took two enslaved men 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.”
Nine enslaved people worked for the Audubons in Henderson, Ky. When he needed money, he sold them.
Audubon was condemned during his own era by the movement of abolitionists who worked to free the enslaved. In return, he dismissed abolitionists “on both sides of the Atlantic,” Gordon wrote.
Beyond Audubon, racism and colonialism are in conservation’s DNA. Everything including mountains and the types of grass and parks have had offensive and racist names that cannot be repeated.
In the archives of the American Ornithological Society, the Wallace’s owlet and five other birds honor Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist who helped Charles Darwin conceive the theory of evolution.
Wallace frequently used the n-word in his writings, including when he referred to a “little brown hairy baby” he boasted about caring for after fatally shooting his mother in 1855. He was talking about an orangutan.
Mount Rushmore was carved into native land that tribes continue to claim. At least six native tribes existed in what is now Yellowstone National Park. Everglades National Park was once the dominion of Seminoles, who were forcibly removed.
“The assumption when you say you’re going to remove the name,” Nelson said, “is that you’re trying to cancel Audubon. We’re not trying to cancel John James Audubon altogether. Most of his art … was important in that era and continues to resonate.
“We’re just saying the things he did during his lifetime doesn’t reflect our values and doesn’t fit our view of what the present is and what the future should be.”
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