Before embarking on this post, I did a quick search to see how many times the name “Audubon” comes up in Garden Rant posts and comments. The answer: many, many times, though – interestingly – not always in a complimentary manner. We’ve taken the National Audubon Society to task for buying into overly general meme-centered directives like “leave the leaves.” But we’ve also been supportive of the society’s bird conservation initiatives, and, looking at comments, it seems like many of our readers are too.
There might be other reasons to critique the society, but it’s safe to say that those have been swallowed up by the now-raging controversy over naming anything whatsoever after John James Audubon (1785 – 1851), the famous artist and ornithologist. Though his being a slave owner must have been widely known for decades, if not often discussed, Audubon’s active anti-abolitionism, and really disgusting attitudes toward Black and Indigenous people were rarely talked about.
But since at least 2020, more voices have been heard insisting that this shameful part of his legacy be confronted and that steps be taken to repudiate it. Those steps have included requests that the Audubon name be removed from many of the organizations and places where it is used.
Last month, the National Audubon Society decided to keep the name, though branches in Seattle, Chicago, Washington, DC, Portland, Madison, WI, and others are discarding it, which they’re free to do, as the ties between the national organization and the branches are minimal.
This is a massive issue. There are streets, neighborhoods, parks, historic sites, libraries and more named after this guy, all across the country.
In Buffalo/Western New York, the local society is considering a name change. But the people who live in the communities and on the streets named after Audubon are not quite as sure about changing anything, nor are the town officials who’d have to manage it all.
Buffalo’s science museum was saved from near-extinction by the sale of a lesser edition of “The Birds of America” (our library has a much better folio, page from it shown above). One of these sold for $11 million at Sotheby’s in 2010.
Interestingly, many birds are named after explorers or naturalists who were also racists.
The societies who are changing their names are easily finding substitutes, like “Nature Forward,” “Bird Union,” and “Birds Connect.” It’s not like Audubon founded any of these things named after him; he wasn’t a conservationist, which, to be fair, wasn’t as much of a thing back then.
He was no Olmsted.
I have no issue with getting rid of the name, where possible. The national society is taking a lot of heat for not doing so, and I can understand why. It is tougher for them, but maybe they should.
I won’t disavow the art though. I try to see the portfolio whenever our library has it on view and would be fine with an Audubon art center if primarily displaying the bird paintings and prints – as well as other bird art – was its major purpose.
But we don’t need his name to help birds.
Imagine living in a town named for lynching! Better believe that’s an issue now Lynchburg VA
I’m sure you know that Lynchburg being “named for lynching” is a wildly inaccurate characterization. A quick Google search will explain the actual origins of the name.
George Washington owned slaves. Should we rename the capital? Does getting rid of the “bad” names also help us getting rid of the bad issue? My garden is certified by the Audubon Society as bird-friendly habitat, and I display the Audubon Society sign to encourage others to make their gardens more bird-friendly as well. Should I be accused now of being racist, support racism? Does every person willingly living in Washington, DC, support racism because they don’t protest the city’s name? When do we begin to take things too far? Honestly, I don’t have an answer.
I live in the Boston area and we are also seeing renaming to streets , removal of statues etc, We can’t change history, our history- we should be aware or the accepted values of the past, we don’t have to agree with them – we can change. that was then, this is now
I did know that Audubon killed birds so he could study them and draw them accurately. I’ve always hated this about him. Embarrassingly, I didn’t know the even worse aspect of his life.
To name something or someone after a person is a way of honoring that person. Clearly, Audubon was a horrible person, and deserves no such honor.
As a white person, I cannot know what it’s like to walk down a street named after a person that treated my ancestors so badly and hatefully. Removing statues, renaming streets or sports teams doesn’t change history, nor erase it. It does correct mistakes made during an earlier time, and is the right and considerate thing to do.
I, for one, see little reason to sanitize history, if it risks the chances of forgetting the lessons we’ve learned from it. Mourn the birds Audubon killed and the people he enslaved, but mourn more the billions, if not trillions eliminated from the world by the rest of humanity; the enslaved souls as well as the dodo’s, passenger pigeons, carolina parakeets, and many others. Yes, streets and societies were named for him but now when we tell their history, we’ll include the truth seen through today’s eyes and we’ll remember and learn where we have advanced our natures.