Maryland Audubon group changes name due to namesake's racist past The Audubon Naturalist Society, based in Montgomery County, no longer wants to be associated with John James Audubon, a 19th century ornithologist, artist, and enslaver.
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Maryland Audubon group changes name due to namesake's racist past

Maryland Audubon group changes name due to namesake's racist past

John James Audubon traveled North America in the early 1800s, painting life-sized illustrations of the continent's native birds. This illustration shows the wood thrush, the official bird of D.C. Courtesy of/John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Montgomery County Audubon Collection, and Zebra Publishing hide caption

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Courtesy of/John James Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Montgomery County Audubon Collection, and Zebra Publishing

Many environmental organizations are grappling with the racist legacies of their founders or namesakes, in the wake the nation's ongoing social justice movement. This has led one local organization, the Audubon Naturalist Society, to change its name, dropping the word "Audubon."

For many people, the word is associated not with a person, but with birds and wildlife conservation: There is a powerhouse national Audubon organization with a budget of more than $120 million total, plus a constellation of more than 450 chapters and independent Audubon groups around the country, many of them more than 100 years old.

But there is a man behind the name: John James Audubon.

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In the 1820s Audubon traveled the continent with the goal of cataloguing and drawing all the native birds of North America.

John James Audubon. Courtesy of/Library of Congress hide caption

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Courtesy of/Library of Congress

His detailed, realistic, life-sized illustrations were "really quite unprecedented for the time," says Dorceta Taylor, a professor of environmental justice at Yale. Audubon's work as an ornithologist and artist galvanized the early environmental movement. But Audubon's other work was ignored, says Taylor. He owned a trading post in Kentucky, where he bought and sold enslaved people.

"He traded in everything, even some of the birds that he killed. He would draw them. Then he would either sell them in the shop or eat them for dinner, so he was he was very pragmatic that way," Taylor says.

"So human trafficking was for him another kind of commerce."

This history didn't sit well with leaders at the Audubon Naturalist Society, a local, independent group based in Montgomery County.

"When you look at the facts of the man himself, it just doesn't seem like the right namesake," says Lisa Alexander, executive director of ANS. The group recently announced it's changing its name, leaving behind Audubon and his racist past. The choice for a new name is still in the works, and in the meantime, Alexander says, the group will use the acronym, ANS.

It's still possible to acknowledge the beauty of Audubon's work and its impact, says Alexander, as well as all the accomplishments of the organizations that later took his name. Audubon societies popped up around the country in the late 1800s, as bird populations were being decimated. Many millions of birds were being killed each year so their feathers could be used in fashion — hats with long extravagant feathers were all the rage.

One ornithologist conducted a "feathered hat census" in Manhattan in 1886, and documented 40 species of native birds on hats; in fact bird feathers decorated three-quarters of the 700 women's hats observed.

Women led the charge to stop the slaughter, forming groups they named for the man who had so thoroughly and beautifully catalogued the nation's birds in his book, Birds of America. Their activism took aim at the fashion industry, pushing for cruelty-free alternatives, such as the featherless "Audubonnet." The campaign was successful, leading to the 1918 Migratory Bird Treaty Act, which largely put an end to the feather trade.

A "chanticleer" hat made of bird feathers. Courtesy of/Library of Congress hide caption

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Courtesy of/Library of Congress

Nowadays, Alexander says, the world faces a much graver threat, one that will require an inclusive environmental movement.

"If we're going to face up to our biggest environmental threat in human history, climate change, we all have to be at the table."

When it comes to diversity and inclusion in the environmental movement, the problem goes much deeper than names, says Caroline Brewer, the director of marketing and communications at the Audubon Naturalist Society. Brewer, who is Black, says white people have historically occupied the leadership positions at environmental groups. "When people talk about issues affecting the environment, it's their experiences that have been reflected."

Brewer says ANS has worked hard in recent years to become more inclusive, launching conferences for Black and Latinx environmentalists, and going from a board of directors where everyone was white to one today where half are people of color.

"The name change is just one other step along this journey," says Brewer.

The ANS is not the only organization struggling with their namesake.

Tykee James, president of the DC Chapter of the National Audubon Society, is no fan of the name. "I look forward to the last day Audubon's name is said," James says.

James is one of the creators of Black Birders Week — started after the viral racial profiling incident of a Black birdwatcher in Central Park. He says the D.C. chapter of the national society hasn't yet discussed the possibility of a name change, but he supports examining the issue.

"Asking the question and constantly seeking the answer of how we got here puts it in a much better position to figure out what we need to do next," James says.

The National Audubon Society is also reconsidering the name; it's just launched a 12- to 18-month process to dig into the history and discuss how to address it moving forward. Jamaal Nelson, chief equity, diversity, and inclusion officer at the national group, says the question of a name change is not clear cut.

"John James Audubon was indeed an enslaver and a racist, and had a racial worldview that was extraordinarily oppressive for Black, indigenous, and folk of color," Nelson says. At the same time, he says, "it is also true that the Audubon name and brand today is widely associated with birds."

Earlier this year, the National Audubon Society's CEO stepped down, after widespread reports of systemic racism and sexism in the organization. One staff survey found 66% of respondents agreed with the statement, "Audubon doesn't create an environment where diverse staff can thrive."

Nelson acknowledges grappling with the name won't fix those problems. "There's far more work to do."

Andres Jimenez, who runs the D.C.-based nonprofit Green 2.0, which works to make environmental groups more inclusive, says a name change or a public examination of a name's history is a good place to start, "but by no means is that the end."

Jimenez says more important than names are actions — especially in terms of hiring.

"People of color need to be integrated into all different types of positions, whether it's treasurer, VP, president, staff assistant, scientist," says Jimenez.

In the past year and half, since the killing of George Floyd, and the racial justice movement that's followed, Jimenez says, more organizations have been willing to confront the issues of racism in their past and present.

Taylor, of Yale, agrees. Her book, The Rise of the American Conservation Movement: Power, Privilege, and Environmental Protection, was published in 2016, and at the time she wondered how long it would take before the issues it raised would move beyond academia.

Taylor also recalls a moment from early in her career, at a conference about John Muir in the mid-1990s, where she spoke about the racist past of the revered Sierra Club founder.

"I was the only person of color in the room, and I literally had to get out of that room because I thought people were going to get physical and turn on me."

Taylor says a name change can be a good thing — a way to stay relevant and "project a contemporary vision of environmentalism more effectively."

After all, while many environmentalists today might admire Audubon's art, few would approve of his method of slaughtering birds to draw them up close.

"Conservationists don't behave like that anymore," says Taylor.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news site of WAMU.

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