National Audubon Society will keep its name despite namesake’s history, DC chapter official calls decision ‘shortsighted’

The National Audubon Society has decided to keep its name after more than a year of taking a hard look at the legacy of its namesake John James Audubon, the 19th century illustrator and naturalist who — according to the organization’s own assessment — has a “complicated” history.

The decision by one of the nation’s leading bird conservation organization’s board of directors came after more than a year of examining the issues surrounding Audubon’s history of owning slaves. On the National Audubon Society’s website, Audubon is described as a “genius” and a “pioneer” as well as “a complex and troubling character who did despicable things even by the standards of his day.”

In a letter from Elizabeth Gray, CEO of the National Audubon Society, writing of Audubon, “There can be no doubt of the impact of his life’s work and passion for birds. And yet — he was also an enslaver whose racist views and treatment of Black and Indigenous people must be reckoned with.”

Gray described the year in which the organization grappled with the “right path forward” but explains that the group ultimately decided “that the organization transcends one person’s name. “Audubon” has come to symbolize our mission and significant achievements that this organization has made in its long history.”

While keeping Audubon’s name, the group is committing $25 million to fund efforts on equity, diversity, inclusion and belonging (DEIB) over the next five years.

A number of regional Audubon groups objected to keeping Audubon’s name, and are in the process of renaming their organizations.

Among those is the DC Audubon Society, which expects to decide on a new name and make the announcement at the group’s annual membership meeting in October.

Tykee James, president of the D.C. Audubon Society, which will drop the Audubon name and is expected to announce a new name in the fall. (Courtesy Tykee James)

The D.C. organization’s website homepage announces its intention to change its name and includes a graphic with a wood thrush, D.C.’s official bird. Alongside the image of the bird, the words DC Audubon Society appear translucent, a signifier of the pending name change.

Tykee James, president of the D.C. group, told WTOP that he was “disappointed but not surprised” by the national organization’s decision, calling it “shortsighted.”

James, who previously worked at the National Audubon Society, said, “With an organization that claims it wants to be relevant into the future, claims it wants to be relevant to a more diverse audience, this is 20 steps back in the opposite direction.”

The DC Audubon Society is a fully volunteer-based organization, and James says its mission is to “build a people-powered, bird-friendly” community across all eight wards of the District of Columbia.

James, who has been birding for a decade said, “Everybody has a story about birds, but not always do they have the opportunity or space to share those stories.”

James says his group has hosted birding outings with Congressional staffers, and he’s hosted joint bird tours with the Anacostia Riverkeeper program. James’ group has also recently appointed a “Minister of Birding” to manage the group’s bird walk programs.

Kate Ryan

As a member of the award-winning WTOP News, Kate is focused on state and local government. Her focus has always been on how decisions made in a council chamber or state house affect your house. She's also covered breaking news, education and more.

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