Audubon Society Bucks the Mob and Keeps Its Name Despite Ties to Slavery

(Katie Barnes/Birmingham Audubon via AP)

When will the mob stop trying to intimidate and bully organizations for reasons that are manufactured out of whole cloth? When those organizations stand up and fight them.


The National Audubon Society is one of the best-known naturalist organizations in the country. It was founded in 1905 and named after John James Audubon, whose delicate and elegant paintings of birds did so much to create interest in our feathered friends. Audubon was long dead by the time the groups of bird lovers named their society after him.

Audubon was more than an artist. He was a writer and scientist as well. But John James Audubon was a flawed man. He apparently owned two or three slaves and opposed emancipation.

Abraham Lincoln opposed emancipation until 1862, but that doesn’t matter when you’re looking for reasons to destroy a man’s legacy.

So for the last several years, the National Audubon Society has been under enormous pressure to change the name of its organization. And this week, the board rejected the idea that Audubon’s name should be stricken from the group whose creation was inspired by his work.


The organization cited two main reasons for keeping Audubon’s name: it’s grappling with the critical challenge facing birds and other wildlife due to climate change and other pressures; and it believes the name of the group, founded some 50 years after Audubon’s death, “has come to represent so much more than the work of one person.”

Still, it added, “We must reckon with the racist legacy.”


It’s good to reckon with the past. But why should the real accomplishments of John James Audubon be buried because the man was an imperfect individual? Is a man of his time — the 19th century — to be judged solely and exclusively through the moral lens of 21st-century America? How come some sins are forgiven while others are used to shatter an individual’s reputation?

Why don’t we take Martin Luther King’s infidelity as a fatal flaw in his character? Or his associations with the Communists sworn to overthrow the government as evidence of his unworthiness?

The reason we don’t is for the same reason we shouldn’t judge Audubon’s historical transgressions. No one is perfect. And deciding who is to be historically flayed for their sins is about politics — not history.

The National Audubon Society’s refusal to give in to the mob did not extend to some of its chapters.

A patchwork of conservation groups carry the Audubon name across the U.S.; some are local chapters affiliated with the national society, while others are independent. So far, at least five groups have dropped the Audubon name or are in the process of doing so.

The first to ditch the name was the Audubon Naturalist Society, based just outside of Washington, D.C. — it’s now called Nature Forward. Others planning similar moves include Seattle Audubon, Chicago Audubon and Portland Audubon. In some cases, they’ve put a slash mark through Audubon’s name where it appears on their websites.


I’m tempted to say, “What do you expect from a bunch of birdbrains,” but that would insult the birds.


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