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Audubon’s beautiful birds don’t erase his racist life

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You don’t have to be a bird enthusiast to know that the name “Audubon” is synonymous with our feathered friends. What is less known is that John James Audubon was a racist slave owner. This background should keep him from having his name attached to the Seattle Birding Organization and all the other Audubon societies.

Audubon, like many historical figures, presents a complex story to modern eyes.

He was a central figure in early American natural science. His seminal work, Birds of America, contains hundreds of paintings showing over 1,000 birds, supposedly every known species in the United States at the time. These illustrations are impressive in their precision and beauty. Any library or museum lucky enough to own an original Audubon folio displays it under glass and turns a page every week or so.

But Audubon, who lived from 1785 to 1851, had a life beyond the birds. He owned black slaves. He supported white supremacy and a flavor of eugenics. He opposes abolition. And he appropriated Aboriginal artifacts.

Importantly, Audubon did not even found the Audubon Society. It was founded decades after his death and adopted his name to honor his work with birds.

Given this disturbing story, the Seattle Audubon Board of Trustees voted to drop his name. Currently, “Audubon” is simply crossed out on the band’s website. He hopes to change his name by the end of the year and welcomes suggestions at: [email protected]

Seattle Audubon held a virtual meeting Tuesday to discuss the change with members and the public. Over 100 people called. Most of those who spoke supported the decision.

“In our experience, people of color generally don’t know Audubon exists,” said Seattle Audubon Community Director Glenn Nelson. “We want to engage marginalized communities that we don’t currently embrace.”

Nearly a third of the Seattle company’s staff will soon be people of color, Nelson says, and the group is redoubling its efforts to engage with historically marginalized communities. Society cannot in good conscience ask people of color to join a group named after a slaver and cultural imperialist, let alone wear a shirt or hat named after him.

A speaker at Tuesday’s meeting was glad the organization is not getting bogged down in the “Seattle process” with the change. It is true that public and community decisions — governmental or not — sometimes take longer in Seattle. But engaging diverse stakeholders also yields better results. Seattle Audubon would do well to continue the conversation about a new name until the change is complete.

People and organizations may respect Audubon’s work with birds, but his name should not be the hallmark of birdwatching in Seattle or America.