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National Audubon Society keeps name despite namesake's ties to slavery

Several local chapters have already dropped the name from their titles.
Credit: Tada Images - stock.adobe.com

WASHINGTON — Despite a series of calls to abandon its namesake, the National Audubon Society has decided to keep the name of 19th-century bird illustrator and enslaver John James Audubon. 

The national bird conservation group's decision comes as several local chapters and its employee union have dropped the name from their titles.

While announcing the decision, the board of directors said that resolution came after more than a year of "robust and inclusive" evaluations with feedback from over 2,000 members and outsiders. 

The board also commissioned historical research that examined "John James Audubon’s life, views, and how they did—and did not—reflect his time." The National Audubon Society was founded in 1905, nearly 50 years after Audubon's death.  

A contentious decision to keep the name was met with internal strife, with three board members resigning after the board voted to keep it on Monday, the Washington Post reports.

In an open letter penned by Audubon's Chief Executive Officer Elizabeth Gray, the CEO acknowledged the namesake's racist past and explained the board's reasoning for the decision. 

"I understand people may be wondering how that is possible if Audubon remains in our name. That is a question the Board has grappled with, and ultimately, they decided that the organization transcends one person’s name," Gray said in the letter. “Audubon has come to symbolize our mission and significant achievements that this organization has made in its long history."

The Bird Union, the group's employee union, responded to the board's decision on Wednesday, saying the Audubon's 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." 

Aside from keeping its name, the conservation group announced Wednesday a $25 million commitment over five years to fund the expansion of equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging work both internally and through conservation programs.

Gray also acknowledged the fact that some chapters have already abandoned their namesake. She reiterated, however, that the group will continue to work with all chapter leaders.

"We’re all committed to the same mission," Gray said in her letter.

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