Updated Mar 15, 2023 - Science

National Audubon Society votes to keep name despite ties to slavery

John James Audubon painting in landscape holding his rifle with his hunting dog and horse by his side.

John James Audubon (1785-1851). Painting by an unknown artist showing Audubon in a landscape holding his rifle with his hunting dog and horse by his side. Photo: Getty Images

The National Audubon Society’s board of directors voted to keep the organization's name despite calls to cut ties with John James Audubon, a bird artist and enslaver the organization announced Wednesday.

The big picture: The decision follows a fierce debate over the past year and resulted in the society announcing a new $25 million commitment toward expanding equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging work.

  • Three board members resigned in response to the decision, the Washington Post reported and Axios confirmed.
  • Some local chapters of the National Audubon Society have already dropped the name, including Chicago, D.C., Seattle and Portland, as well as its employee union, The Bird Union.

Details: The board of directors started a "robust and inclusive" evaluation process more than a year ago involving feedback from over 2,300 internal and external stakeholders "with a focus on reaching people of color and younger people," according to the announcement.

  • They also commissioned historical research into "John James Audubon’s life, views, and how they did—and did not—reflect his time."

Background: John James Audubon was a 19th-century naturalist and illustrator whose work impacted the field of ornithology. He was also an enslaver and anti-abolitionist.

What they’re saying: In an open letter, CEO Elizabeth Gray acknowledged Audubon was "an enslaver whose racist views and treatment of Black and Indigenous people must be reckoned with."

  • She said the board ultimately decided "that the organization transcends one person’s name" and "Audubon" has become a symbol of the organization's achievements.
  • The Bird Union said Wednesday in a statement, per Greenwire: “The National Audubon Society’s decision to keep the name of enslaver and white supremacist John James Audubon shows that the Board and CEO Dr. Elizabeth Gray have no interest in following through on their commitments to cultivate a fair and equitable workplace."

Meanwhile, board chair Susan Bell said in a statement to Axios that the board was "disappointed" to lose three members but "we respect their decision."

  • "We also value tremendously the many diverse and reasoned perspectives that these Directors — and others — have brought to this difficult conversation for our organization," Bell added.

Editor's note: This article has been updated to include comment from Susan Bell.

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