Audubon has faced backlash after he decided to keep a name that is reminiscent of a racist enslaver.

Renowned naturalist John James Audubon “did mean things” and supported his work by buying and selling enslaved people – according to the organization that bears his name. But the board of directors of the National Audubon Society this week rejected the idea of ​​changing its name, prompting a resignation 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 names were considered as possible alternatives.

The organization cited two main reasons for keeping the Audubon name alive: to combat the critical challenges that birds and other wildlife face due to climate change and other pressures; and he believes that the name of the group, founded about 50 years after Audubon’s death, “came to represent much more than the work of one man”.

However, he added, “we must reckon with the racist legacy.”

3 board members resigned

The debate about how to approach this legacy seems to have divided people at the highest levels: In an email to NPR, the society confirmed that board members stepped down following the name decision.

While NAS has not named members individually, the leadership page on the group’s website is currently missing the names of the three board directors that were listed earlier this month: Sarah Fuentes, Erin Giese, and Steven Tan, who served as vice chairman.

The three former board members did not respond to NPR’s requests for comment.

In an NPR report, National Audubon Society board chairman Susan Bell said the organization is “disappointed at the loss of these directors and the wisdom and dedication they have brought.” She mentioned “the diverse and reasoned perspectives that these directors and others have brought to this difficult conversation for our organization.”

Local bands drop the Audubon name

Those who criticize the continued use of the Audubon name include leaders of the DC Audubon Society. a branch in the nation’s capital that is moving ahead with a renaming plan.

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

Some of this division was seen on the national body’s Facebook page, where commentators debated how the band’s history should fit into retribution for America’s racist legacy in recent years.

“This is a missed opportunity to move away from the exclusive ornithological image of a white men’s club,” one commenter wrote, “to something more appropriate for the times we live in.”

A patchwork of conservation groups bears Audubon’s name across the US; some are local chapters affiliated with the National Society, while others are independent. So far, at least five bands have dropped the Audubon name or are in the process of doing so.

The first to drop the name was the Audubon Society of Naturalists, based near Washington, D.C., now called Nature Forward. Others planning similar moves include Seattle Audubon, Chicago Audubon and Portland Audubon. In some cases, they put a slash in the Audubon name where it appears on their websites.

Historical review is not kind to Audubon, man

The NAS board decided not to change the name more than a year after saying it would consider dropping its longtime eponym. The review process was “robust and inclusive,” the group said, adding that more than 2,300 people contributed. The process emphasized “reaching out to people of color and young people,” according to NAS.

The NAS commissioned a historical review of Audubon’s life and views. The picture that came back was not flattering. Even prior to this assessment, NAS had published articles that portrayed Audubon as an influential artist, propagandist, and cataloguer of nature, as well as someone whose views on blacks and indigenous people were deeply rooted in racism.

“His contribution to ornithology, art and culture is enormous, but he was a complex and disturbing character who did heinous things even by the standards of his time,” reads the National Audubon Society home page.

The biography page provides a list of infractions, from Audubon’s repeated buying and selling of enslaved people to his criticism of emancipation and allegations of plagiarism. Audubon also lied about his ancestry: his mother was French or Haitian Creole, despite his claim that she was a wealthy Spanish, as noted in a 2021 article.

In 2020, a contribution to Audubon magazine, biographer Gregory Nobles added in more detail:

“In early 1819, for example, Audubon took two enslaved men down the Mississippi to New Orleans in a boat, and when he got there, he put the boat and the people up for sale. The Audubons then acquired several more enslaved people. during the 1820s, but sold them again in 1830 when they moved to England, where Audubon oversaw the production of what he called his “Great Work”. Birds of Americathe massive four-volume collection of bird art that made him famous.”

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