In a statement, Claire Catania, executive director of the Seattle chapter, said: “The shameful legacy of the real John James Audubon, not the mythologized version, is contrary to the mission of this organization and its values.”
The move is part of a tally by ornithology, birding, and the broader U.S. conservation movement to address historic racism in its organizations and practices. Seattle Audubon said it would probably take six months to come up with a new name.
In recent months, conservation groups such as Audubon, Sierra Club, Union of Concerned Scientists and Environmental Defense Fund have attacked national parks and monuments made up of land stolen from natives and honorary bird names given to men who were Indian grave robbers, slavers and racists who in some cases 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 named a society began protecting endangered egrets in his honor, with little attention paid to his more troubling past. Now, the organizations he spawned hang over his entire history.
Both the Seattle organization and the national group have been planning to change their names for more than a year. Last year, Elizabeth Gray, then acting chief executive of the National Audubon Society, said she was “deeply troubled” by Audubon’s racist actions but the group had a lot to unpack when it came to to know what to do about it.
The company is still unpacking. “The National Audubon Society is still exploring John James Audubon and has not yet made a decision regarding 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…because…they represent themselves to the community they serve.”
But Seattle Audubon isn’t alone, said Glenn Nelson, the chapter’s community director. When its board drafted a resolution to change its name in the interest of diversity and inclusion in its ranks and throughout conservation, three other chapters in Wisconsin, New York and San Francisco have signed.
Another group, the Audubon Naturalist Society at Chevy Chase, is expected to complete its name change process in October. Its executive director, Lisa Alexander, said last year that the company had been considering a name change since 2010. In 2020, the killing of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer pushed the issue to the top of the group’s agenda.
The January 6, 2021 riot on Capitol Hill made change an even bigger priority. “Did it speed up the conversation?” said Alexander. “You bet.”
Although Seattle Audubon’s resolution was unanimously approved, it comes at a price, according to some of its leaders. After the resolution was announced, a board member resigned and requested that his biography be removed from the website. The official remains anonymous.
As the national organization considers a name change, it must consider the potential return of 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 welcomed the move, saying they were proud to be part of an organization taking such a bold step, a few strongly opposed it.
“Do you have any empirical evidence that… keeping the Audubon name does harm society significantly? Are people of color boycotting us? a member wrote in the chat.
Other than Glenn, who is Japanese American, there were no people of color on the call. It was basically white people talking to other white people, Glenn said.
“I am concerned about the dropping of the Audubon 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 a shameless slaver. When Britain emancipated the slaves of the West Indies, he wrote to his wife in 1834 that the government “had acted recklessly and too hastily”, wrote Gregory Nobles in Audubon Magazine. It was not out of place for a man who, 15 years earlier, “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”.
Nine slaves worked for the Audubons in Henderson, Ky. When he needed money, he sold them.
Audubon was condemned in his time by the movement of abolitionists who worked to free slaves. In return, he sent abolitionists “on both sides of the Atlantic”, wrote Gordon.
Beyond Audubon, racism and colonialism are in the DNA of conservation. Everything, including mountains and types of grass and parks, have had offensive and racist names that cannot be repeated.
In the records of the American Ornithological Society, Wallace’s Owl and five other birds honor Alfred Russel Wallace, a British naturalist who helped Charles Darwin devise the theory of evolution.
Wallace used the n-word frequently in his writings, notably when referring to a “little brown hairy baby” he boasted of caring for after he shot and killed his mother in 1855. He was talking about an orang- utan.
Mount Rushmore was carved into the native land that the tribes continue to claim. At least six native tribes existed in what is now Yellowstone National Park. Everglades National Park was once the domain of the 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 undo Audubon. We’re not trying to completely undo John James Audubon. Most of his art… was important at that time and continues to resonate.
“We’re just saying the things he’s done in his life don’t reflect our values and don’t align with our vision of what the present is and what the future should be.”