Posted on March 19, 2023

Audubon Society Won’t Change Name, Despite Namesake’s Racism

Dinah Voyles Pulver, USA Today, March 16, 2023

In a move decried by some of its chapters and members, the National Audubon Society’s board voted this week to retain the name of artist and illustrator John James Audubon, who bought and sold Black people and ransacked native burial sites.

Citing “critical threats” to the nation’s birds, the organization said its decision would allow it to focus time and resources on conservation and promoting equity and inclusion, while acknowledging its namesake’s racist legacy.

Audubon was “an enslaver, whose racism and harmful attitudes toward Black and Indigenous people are now well-understood,” the society stated.

Evaluation of a potential name change began last year, with surveys and feedback from people inside and outside the organization, wrote Elizabeth Gray, the society’s chief executive officer. But ultimately, the board decided the society “transcends one person’s name.”

“‘Audubon has come to symbolize our mission and significant achievements that this organization has made in its long history,” the group stated.


Are some of the more than 600 chapters dropping the name?

Yes. Chapters in Seattle, Chicago, Portland, D.C. and Madison, Wisconsin are changing their names.

Others have been waiting for the national decision, assuming the name would change and they could follow the new name, said James, the D.C. chapter president and a former society employee. Now, he said, an alliance is forming behind the scenes because of a perceived lack of leadership at the national level.


The union of society employees changed its name in February from “Audubon for All,” to “The Bird Union.”

On Wednesday, the union stated: “Their 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.”

Its members tweeted that Gray told them in a staff Zoom call that three board members resigned immediately after the board’s decision. The society didn’t release the board members’ names but by Thursday, three directors had been removed from its leadership website: Sara Fuentes, Erin Geise and Stephen Tan, a board vice chair.

Audubon announced it’s pledging $25 million to put its equity, diversity, inclusion, and belonging commitments into action. The society reported $117 million in contributions and grants in 2021 and paid its former chief executive David Yarnold an annual salary of more than $800,000.