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Scott Brinton

Audubon Society confronts its racist namesake — sort of

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Birds have fascinated me since I was a boy growing up in Yaphank, in Suffolk County, in the 1970s. My parents spread birdfeed on our slate-covered cement patio in winter, and we would sit — my mother, father, brother and I — and watch the show from our kitchen as cardinals and house sparrows and blue jays descended en masse, scurrying to snatch the feed out from under one another’s beaks. I kept a journal, counting the different birds that landed.

My wife and I continued the tradition with our two kids at our Merrick home, spending many Sunday morning breakfasts watching from our dining room as birds landed on our wooden deck, scampering for breakfast before it was depleted. At one point, we joined the National Audubon Society, among other environmental groups. Now I’m ashamed to say that I had signed us up for the society, despite believing deeply in its mission to protect and preserve birds.

The Audubon Society has done nothing nefarious. It is a top-rated nonprofit environmental organization with a worldwide reach. The trouble, I recently learned, is this: The organization’s namesake, John James Audubon (1785-1851), was an unabashed racist who owned slaves. On June 13, The Washington Post published an article that blew my mind — “The racist legacy many birds carry” — examining the racism that was pervasive among many 19th-century ornithologists and noting the slave-holding past of Audubon, the most famous of all bird lovers.

The largely self-taught artist is renowned for his masterfully rendered paintings of North American birds, which he compiled into his world-renowned tome, “The Birds of America,” published in 1827. His objective was to catalog all the birds of North America, which made him famous enough that his name is now synonymous around the globe with environmentalism. For goodness’ sake, there’s a city in Tennessee named for him.

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder at the hands of Minneapolis police last July, the Audubon Society published a series of articles on its website that looked critically at the organization’s namesake and his slave-holding past. In “The Myth of John James Audubon,” Audubon Magazine contributor Gregory Nobles wrote, “Audubon was . . . a slaveholder, a point that many people don’t know or, if they do, tend to ignore or excuse.”

To be clear, Audubon did not found the organization that bears his name. Harriet Hemenway and Minna B. Hall, of the Massachusetts Audubon Society, formed the national group in 1896 following the slaughter of millions of waterbirds, in particular egrets and waders, for their fine plumage, which was often used to adorn women’s hats.

Only within the past year, however, has the organization really acknowledged the slaveholder that Audubon was. In the November-December 2004 issue of Audubon Magazine, Frank Graham Jr. examined the life of the society’s namesake in “Audubon’s Legacy: Where It All Began,” never mentioning that Audubon had held as many as nine slaves at one point in the early 1800s. Graham did note, however, that Audubon’s father, Jean Audubon, captained a French cargo ship that traded in rum, sugar and slaves on its “rounds from France to various Caribbean and U.S. ports.”

The article contained one additional slavery reference. Alan Gehret, whom the piece described as a “walking encyclopedia of Auduboniana,” was quoted as saying, “Slave revolts threatened the planters in Haiti, and Jean Audubon wanted to take his children to France and raise them as French citizens.” That was it.

If Gehret, a former museum curator with the Audubon Center at Mill Grove, Pa., was such an encyclopedia of all things Audubon, how did he miss the fact that John James Audubon was a slaveholder? And imagine that — Gehret spoke of potential slave revolts as threatening white people — but failed to acknowledge the daily existential threats faced by Black slaves, who could have been flogged or hanged from a tree at a moment’s notice. Gehret’s statement is racist, intentional or not.

There have been calls for the Audubon Society to change its name. I agree. It should be changed. That would be the only way I might consider rejoining in the future. Only through a name change could the group disassociate itself with its racist namesake, who, according to Nobles, dismissed the abolitionist movement in the United States and Great Britain.

Why does all this matter? Simply put, we mustn’t worship racists and slaveholders. We mustn’t place them on pedestals. We must confront the twisted, demonic history that they represent.

Confronting our nation’s racist past is not cancel culture. It’s the start of the healing process.

Scott Brinton is the Herald Community Newspapers’ executive editor and an adjunct professor at the Hofstra University Herbert School of Communication. Comments about this column? SBrinton@liherald.com.