Audubon Society won't change name, despite namesake's racism. It wants to focus on bird conservation and inclusion initiatives.

In a move decried by some of its chapters and members, the National Audubon Society’s board voted this week to retain the name of artist and illustrator John James Audubon, who bought and sold Black people and ransacked native burial sites.

Citing "critical threats" to the nation's birds, the organization said its decision would allow it to focus time and resources on conservation and promoting equity and inclusion, while acknowledging its namesake's racist legacy.

Audubon was “an enslaver, whose racism and harmful attitudes toward Black and Indigenous people are now well-understood," the society stated.

Evaluation of a potential name change began last year, with surveys and feedback from people inside and outside the organization, wrote Elizabeth Gray, the society's chief executive officer. But ultimately, the board decided the society “transcends one person’s name."

“‘Audubon has come to symbolize our mission and significant achievements that this organization has made in its long history," the group stated.

Reaction was swift.

"I was disappointed, but not surprised," said Tykee James, president of the society's Washington, D.C., chapter. He expects the "shortsighted" decision to further divide the group's 1.9 million members.

Who was John James Audubon?

A naturalist and illustrator, Audubon traveled North America in the early 1800s to document its birds, collecting and painting them. He gained great fame after producing a set of large plates with life-sized bird paintings that were bound into books.

"There can be no doubt of the impact of his life’s work and passion for birds," Gray wrote.

The society was named 50 years after his death, when a founder, George Bird Grinnell, who had been tutored by Audubon’s widow Lucy, chose the name because of the artist’s contributions to ornithology.

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What is Audubon's 'problematic legacy'?

The Audubon Society first condemned its namesake's "problematic legacy" in a statement in 2020. He was "a complex and troubling character who did despicable things even by the standards of his day," according to the society's website.

John James Audubon traveled North America in the 1800s, documenting its birds in a series of paintings and illustrations.
John James Audubon traveled North America in the 1800s, documenting its birds in a series of paintings and illustrations.

In a series of articles, the society and some chapters have noted:

  • He bought and sold Black people. Audubon had nine enslaved individuals working in his household in the 1810s, at a time when many others spoke out in favor of abolishing slavery.

  • In the 1830s, he wrote to his wife that the British government had “acted imprudently and too precipitously” in emancipating enslaved people in its West Indian possessions.

  • He ransacked burial sites in North America and collected skulls of Indigenous people.

  • He's accused of plagiarism and inventing bird species for his personal gain.

Meanwhile, Audubon's own ancestral roots are debated, with some stating his mother may have been a Creole woman of mixed race.

John James Audubon: Made-up birds, scientific fraud, and the bird-watching world's strangest mystery

Are some of the more than 600 chapters dropping the name?

Yes. Chapters in Seattle, Chicago, Portland, Washington and Madison, Wisconsin, are changing their names. 

Others have been waiting for the national decision, assuming the name would change and they could follow the new name, said James, the Washington chapter president and a former society employee. Now, he said, an alliance is forming behind the scenes because of a perceived lack of leadership at the national level.

The society's perspective on its current name "isn't relevant to so many people who are in need of meaningful environmental progress," he said. The decision is "a disadvantage to the mission of bird conservation by making it less accessible and less relevant to the people who need it most."

Changing a name does not erase history or “cancel” anyone, the Madison chapter stated. "Audubon’s contributions will persist regardless of what our organization is named."

The Seattle chapter stated: "We are shocked, confused, and deeply disappointed by today’s announcement from the National Audubon Society that their organizational namesake will continue to elevate an enslaver who committed scientific fraud and plagiarism, and desecrated Indigenous burial sites in service to racist pseudoscience.'

How did Audubon's staff react?

The union of society employees changed its name in February from “Audubon for All,” to "The Bird Union.”

On Wednesday, the union stated: “Their decision to double down on celebrating a white supremacist and to continue to brand our good work with his name actively inflicts harm on marginalized communities, including members of our union who for too long have been excluded from the environmental movement.”

Its members tweeted that Gray told them in a staff Zoom call that three board members resigned immediately after the board's decision. The society didn't release the board members' names but by Thursday, three directors had been removed from its leadership website: Sara Fuentes, Erin Geise and Stephen Tan, a board vice chair.

Audubon announced it's pledging $25 million to put its equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging commitments into action. The society reported $117 million in contributions and grants in 2021 and paid its former chief executive David Yarnold an annual salary of more than $800,000.

Racist legacies

Audubon is among many organizations that have wrangled with racist roots and links to controversial historical figures, from sports teams to food companies and other environmental organizations.

The Sierra Club denounced founder John Muir in 2020, based on derogatory comments he made about Black and Indigenous people. The club also pointed to its own roots as an exclusive, invitation-only club for privileged white people, a background similar to the Audubon Society and other environmental groups.

More about the National Audubon Society

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Audubon's citizen science: Attention nature lovers! Researchers need your help counting birds

Dinah Voyles Pulver covers climate and environment issues for USA TODAY. She can be reached at or at @dinahvp on Twitter.

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Audubon Society rejects name change despite namesake's racism