Regarding Our Namesake, John James Audubon

John James Audubon

Editor Note: The following article is excerpted from an email sent by National Audubon to Chapter leaders. It addresses the issue of the personal profile of John James Audubon, our namesake. You are encouraged to read the two linked articles for a fuller appreciation of the issue.

Today I wanted to let you know that we have published the first two articles in a series that will reckon with parts of our history in order to help us build the Audubon of the future. This is something that many communities and organizations are going through right now, as you know.

In his column, Revealing the Past to Create the Future, David Yarnold writes:
“It’s fair to describe John James Audubon as a genius, a pioneer, a fabulist, and a man whose actions reflected a dominant white view of the pursuit of scientific knowledge. His contributions to ornithology, art, and culture are enormous, but he was a complex and troubling character who did despicable things during his life. And, he’s a person that some researchers have argued was part Black himself, which would mean that the most famous American bird artist was a man of color.” Read more.

In The Myth of John James Audubon, Dr. Gregory Nobles, a historian and biographer of John James Audubon, writes:
“A now-legendary painter who traveled North America in the early 19th century, in an epic quest to document all of the continent’s avian life, he is above all known as a champion of birds. Audubon was also a slaveholder, a point that many people don’t know or, if they do, tend to ignore or excuse. ‘He was a man of his time,’ so the argument goes. That’s never been a good argument, even about Audubon’s time—and certainly not in this one—because many men and women in the antebellum era took a strong and outspoken stand for the abolition of slavery.”  Read more.

You may wonder or be asked whether the National Audubon Society is considering a name change because of the negative aspects of John James Audubon’s history. We’re committed to doing the exploration of John James Audubon’s legacy fully and transparently, and we have not made any decisions beyond that yet.