In Amherst, the Audubon Name Is Scrutinized Over Racist, Slaveholding Past
Janet Gramza, Buffalo News, April 10, 2023
The Audubon name is a prominent one across the Buffalo Niagara region, especially in Amherst.
The name is on a golf course, one of the town’s main roads, one of its biggest neighborhoods and even a park.
But now, some are questioning whether the Audubon name should be so widely honored.
A national movement to confront John James Audubon’s slave owner history has several Western New York institutions taking a closer look at the most famous name in birdwatching – and the many locations that bear it.
At the request of staff and faculty, the University at Buffalo has agreed to consider renaming the 1.7-mile stretch of John James Audubon Parkway that encircles its North Campus.
Like many Audubon Society chapters around the country, Buffalo Audubon also is starting the process of analyzing whether it will change its name because of Audubon’s history, said Executive Director Ed Sirianno.
Even the Town of Amherst, which has Audubon’s name written all over it, will devote the next meeting of its Amherst Community Diversity Commission to the topic.
But disavowing racism may be easier than changing a name, said Amherst Supervisor Brian Kulpa.
“We are open to the idea, but there’s a lot to it,” Kulpa said. “We have a lot of Audubons.”
Besides the town’s 1.3 miles of John James Audubon Parkway, Amherst has Audubon Drive and Audubon Terrace, Audubon Town Park, the residential Audubon Community of some 3,000 homes, the Audubon Library and the Audubon Golf Course, to name a few.
The movement to recast the reputation of the renowned ornithologist and bird artist is part of a national trend of confronting racist history in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. In 2020, the Sierra Club disavowed its most famous founder, naturalist John Muir, as a white supremacist.
Around the same time, the national Audubon Society devoted a page of its website to John James Audubon’s complicated history.
“His contributions to ornithology, art, and culture are enormous, but he was a complex and troubling character who did despicable things even by the standards of his day,” it states.
In another article on the website titled “The Myth of John James Audubon,” historian Gregory Nobles notes that Audubon and his wife had nine enslaved people working at their home in Kentucky.
Audubon also called Britain’s emancipation of enslaved people in the West Indies “imprudent” and never considered Black or Native people to be equal to whites.
In recent months, several Audubon-affiliated chapters have voted to remove Audubon from their names and the union of Audubon employees changed its name from Audubon for All to the Bird Union. After a yearlong process, the national Audubon recently announced it would keep the name, sparking criticism from some chapters and members.
The University at Buffalo’s Professional Staff Senate took up the idea in light of UB’s diversity, equity and inclusion mission that has resulted in several name changes on campus.
In 2020, UB removed the names Millard Fillmore, James O. Putnam and Peter B. Porter from four locations on campus because of their pro-slavery views – “a decision that aligns with the university’s commitment to fight systemic racism and create a welcoming environment for all,” UB said.
In late January, the staff senate passed a resolution to rename Audubon Parkway, or at least the part of it under UB jurisdiction, because of John James Audubon’s racism as well as for committing academic fraud and plagiarism, reportedly claiming some bird illustrations done by other artists.
Staff Senate Chair Tim Tryjankowski said UB staff and faculty just want to “do the right thing for the image and philosophies of UB.”
“Especially when potential students come to visit our campus, one of the top things they are looking at are social issues like LGBTQ and diversity,” Tryjankowski said. “I can see a student saying, ‘Mom and dad, this university is on Audubon Parkway? Wasn’t he a bad dude?’ ”
Added Faculty Senate Chair Fred Stoss, “It could be argued that Audubon is even worse than the other people we un-named buildings and roads for.”
As for the Town of Amherst, it would have a monumental task in store if it chose to remove the Audubon name from Audubon Parkway and other locales, Kulpa said.
“Thousands of people have addresses and businesses associated with that name,” he said. “Picture any resident of the Amherst Senior Apartments who has the Audubon Parkway address tied to their driver licenses, billing, Medicaid and credit cards. It’s not as simple as taking down a statue.”