Audubon keeps name tied to enslaver, roils staff

By Robin Bravender | 03/15/2023 01:40 PM EDT

Staff at the National Audubon Society called the move a “decision to double down on celebrating a white supremacist.”

John James Audubon.

John James Audubon is pictured in a portrait provided by the Library of Congress. Library of Congress

The National Audubon Society announced Wednesday that it’s keeping its name, following a lengthy internal debate and pressure from staff to sever ties to its namesake, bird artist and enslaver John James Audubon.

The renaming debate has loomed as a contentious topic within the group for months as some Audubon affiliates have changed their own names, the organization’s employee union dropped Audubon from its title and staff accuse the National Audubon Society’s leadership of paying lip service to diversity efforts without taking sufficient action.

Susan Bell, the chair of the National Audubon Society’s board, informed staff about the decision Wednesday morning in an email.


“As you know, over the course of the past twelve months, the Board has examined the complex and deeply problematic history of our namesake, John James Audubon, and whether a name change would better position the organization to fulfill our goals,” Bell wrote.

The board reached its decision by asking one central question, Bell added. “How does our name impact the ability to carry out our mission? After months of deliberation, the Board has decided that keeping our name best positions us to protect birds and the places they need.”

Audubon CEO Elizabeth Gray in an open letter Wednesday called John James Audubon “an enslaver whose racist views and treatment of Black and Indigenous people must be reckoned with.” Gray added, “Regardless of the name we use, this organization must and will address the inequalities and injustices that have historically existed within the conservation movement.”

Audubon also announced Wednesday that the group is committing $25 million over five years to fund equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging work both internally and through conservation programs.

The announcement prompted outrage among current and former staff who have pushed the organization to drop the Audubon name.

“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,” the conservation group’s staff union said Wednesday in a statement.

That union, which formed under the name Audubon for All, announced last month that it was temporarily renaming itself the Bird Union to distance itself from Audubon and his history as an enslaver (Greenwire, Feb. 22).

Audubon’s “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,” the union said Wednesday.

Bell told staff the decision was “difficult and deeply considered” by each member of the board. “We took into account many factors, including the complexity of John James Audubon’s undeniable contributions to art and ornithology, as well as his racist actions and beliefs which are inconsistent with our values.”

Internal debate about a possible name change has surfaced in all-staff emails as leadership faced pressure to drop the name Audubon.

“Just so I’m clear, all of this, energy, and resources are going to be invested to determine whether or not our aspiring anti-racist organization should continue to be named after a slave owner/slave trader/painter?” Marcos Trinidad, director of the Audubon Center at Debs Park in Los Angeles, wrote to colleagues last September (Greenwire, Jan. 30).

The National Audubon Society has churned through leaders of its diversity office in recent years, including the most recent, who resigned in December, telling staff in a farewell email that the organization at times failed to live up to its stated values of equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging values.

Tykee James, a former employee at the National Audubon Society, said he was “far from surprised, but just as disappointed” by the announcement.

“When I look back at pictures of me in an Audubon shirt, I do feel a sense of shame, more and more, a sense of ignorance,” said James, who co-founded the annual Black Birders Week series that celebrates Black nature enthusiasts.

“It looks like a branding that I had on, carrying the name of that organization into all of the high-profile activities I did as part of Black Birders Week,” James said. “That’s not something that John James Audubon would stand for.”

James is the president of the National Audubon Society’s Washington chapter. The DC Audubon Society announced that it’s dropping “Audubon” from its own name. “We will no longer carry the name of an enslaver to advance our mission,” the group says on its website.

Gray, an ornithologist who’s been leading the organization since her predecessor resigned under pressure in May 2021, told staff in an email Wednesday, “Virtually everyone across the organization has an opinion and feels strongly about this issue.”

Bell and Gray said they would be hosting an all-staff meeting to discuss the issue later Wednesday. Gray encouraged employees to “take the time and space needed to process the news,” and she urged employees to cancel nonessential meetings “to allow room for everyone to sit with this news.”

“Please know that I understand and respect different viewpoints, and I made this clear to the Board during their deliberation process. As CEO, my responsibility is to lead the organization forward,” Gray said in her email.