The National Audubon Society, one of the country’s best-known bird conservation organizations, decided in a closed-door vote this week to retain the name of John James Audubon, famed 19th-century naturalist and wildlife illustrator who was also an unabashed enslaver.
The National Audubon Society’s 26-person board of directors voted to retain its current name during a Zoom meeting on Monday after more than a year of deliberating and gathering feedback from both members and outsiders. Susan Bell, chair of the board, declined to provide a breakdown of the final vote.
“The name has come to represent not one person, but a broader love of birds and nature,” Bell said in a phone interview. “And yet we must reckon with the racist legacy of John James Audubon, the man.”
Yet in a sign of the internal strife, three board members resigned after the organization chose to retain its name, a spokesperson for the group confirmed Wednesday. The official declined to identify the members by name.
Activists in and outside the organization have called upon the group — an influential player in national climate and environmental policy — to jettison Audubon’s name. After months of conducting listening sessions and surveying people in both camps, the national organization’s board of directors decided the moniker is now nearly synonymous with the avian conservation movement — and shouldn’t be abandoned.
“I certainly have been on a learning journey, just like everybody else,” Bell said. “This process was a healthy one.”
The announcement underscores the challenge of rebuking a racist past while retaining a history that has made “Audubon” a household name associated with protecting birds. The internal debate at Audubon mirrors a broader reassessment of the American environmental movement over race.
Before making its decision, the board commissioned surveys to gauge public opinion. The results showed a “pretty wide range of viewpoints,” Bell said. “And there was not an overwhelming majority in either direction, which only reinforces the complexity of the decision.”
Still, leaders of some local chapters had urged for a name change, saying the association with Audubon is making it harder to hire high-quality staffers and, ultimately, protect birds.
“Carrying John James Audubon’s name does not serve us well ethically,” Judy Pollock, president of the Chicago chapter, wrote in a letter last month to the national group. “Audubon is not an appropriate standard-bearer for our organization.”
Audubon, the man and the brand
The group’s namesake looms large in the world of birds. In the early 19th century, Audubon traveled around the North American wilderness to document the continent’s feathered life.
His vivid paintings of the ivory-billed woodpecker, American flamingo and hundreds of other species culminated in his seminal “Birds of America,” printed between 1827 and 1838.
He died in 1851 a world-famous wildlife artist and ornithologist. Even his critics acknowledge he is the “founding father of American birding.”
Nearly half a century after his death, two Massachusetts women fighting the fashion trend of adorning hats with feathers — and even entire dead birds — leveraged the artist’s legacy by naming their bird conservation group after Audubon.
The national organization, founded in 1905, went on to play a key role managing wildlife refuges, sounding the alarm on the pesticide DDT and campaigning for the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency. That advocacy helped cement the link between birds and the Audubon brand.
Yet through both his words and his actions, Audubon the man was an unrepentant enslaver and opponent of the abolitionist movement — an aspect of his legacy under scrutiny today.
In the early 1800s, nine enslaved people worked in his Kentucky home. When money was tight, he sold them. In 1834, Audubon chastised the British government for acting “imprudently and too precipitously” when it freed those enslaved in the Caribbean.
“As much as we celebrate his environmental legacy, we need to grapple with his racial legacy,” historian and biographer Gregory Nobles wrote in a 2020 essay after protests over the murder of George Floyd by Minneapolis police. “If we could train our binoculars on history, now is the time to do so.”
Already, in addition to the chapter in Chicago, branches across the country — including in Seattle; Portland, Ore.; Madison, Wis.; and D.C. — have heeded that call by committing to dropping Audubon from their names. As independent nonprofits, local branches will still be allowed to change their names if they choose.
With a long history of protecting Southern wetland habitats, Audubon has many members who are Republican as well as Democratic. But Rodrick Leary, an Audubon data scientist based in Atlanta, said keeping the name will make it more difficult to grow its ranks among young people.
“Ultimately, if Audubon wants to have a space with a younger population in a more diverse America, it has to change its name,” said Leary, who is on the bargaining committee for the Bird Union, which represents Audubon employees. The union itself dropped Audubon from its name this month.
A long, ugly history of racism in U.S. environmentalism
Efforts to protect nature, like so many other parts of American life, have historically been dominated by White men. The U.S. government forcibly removed Native Americans from what is now Yellowstone and Everglades national parks, leading to calls to return control of parks to tribes. Across the country, many mountains and other natural features still bear an ethnic slur used for Indigenous women.
Even birds themselves aren’t spared. Many are weighed down by racist honorifics. Wallace’s owlet is named after a naturalist who frequently used the n-word in his writings. McCown’s longspur honored until recently a Confederate general who campaigned against Native Americans.
The Sierra Club, considered the nation’s oldest conservation organization, is distancing itself from founder John Muir, the “father of the national parks” who also disparaged African Americans and Native Americans in his writings.
In the Audubon network, Pollock, the Chicago chapter’s head, said Audubon’s baggage has made it harder to hire a new executive director. “This is just one indication of the strong support within our community to dissociate John James Audubon’s name from our chapter’s advocacy,” she wrote.
Elizabeth Gray, chief executive of the National Audubon Society, wants to keep the bird conservation community united in its fight against climate change, habitat loss and myriad other threats against birds while rectifying historic inequalities in the conservation movement.
“Some of the chapters have already announced their intention to change,” Gray said. “What’s really important for me to underscore here and for them to know is that we’re going to continue to work with all the chapter leaders as a unified community moving forward. We’re all committed to the same mission.”
To that end, the National Audubon Society announced Wednesday that it will spend $25 million to expand its work on equity and diversity, which will include funding for urban conservation centers and chapters at historically Black colleges and universities.
Currently, a bit more than a quarter of the group’s staff are people of color, up from 18 percent in 2017. Eight of the 26 directors who took the vote are people of color. The group is also hiring a chief officer focused on diversity and equity.
Even as Pollock advocates for a name change, she knows it’s not an easy task. Her group has yet to determine a new moniker for itself.
“It’s hard to come up with a name that says all the things that the name ‘Audubon’ did,” she said.
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated there were 27 people on the board. As of Monday, the National Audubon Society's board of directors had 26 members. The article has been corrected.
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