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Mass Audubon has ‘no plans’ to change name over naturalist’s ties to slavery

John James Audubon was a 19th-century artist and ornithologist whose most famous work is ‘Birds of America’

John James Audubon (1785-1851) was an artist, ornithologist, and naturalist. He also supported slavery.

At least three organizations that bear the name of acclaimed avian artist John James Audubon have opted to reject their namesake because of his ties to slavery. But officials at the local conservation organization Mass Audubon say there are “no plans” for such a change.

“We currently have no plans to change the organization’s name but reserve the right to revisit it in the future,” said Michael P. O’Connor, a spokesman for Mass Audubon.

John James Audubon was a 19th-century artist and ornithologist whose most famous work, “Birds of America,” contained 435 watercolors of bird species from across the United States.

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He also supported slavery.

“Audubon was a brilliant bird artist, a good ornithologist, but also a man with a complicated identity. Part of that identity was his having been, at various times, a slaveholder,” said Gregory Nobles, a history professor emeritus at Georgia Tech and the author of “John James Audubon: The Nature of the American Woodsman.”

Between 1810 and 1820, Audubon held nine slaves in his household in Henderson, Ky. In 1819, he took a pair of enslaved men with him on a trip down the Mississippi River and sold them in New Orleans, said Nobles.

Nobles said he has often wondered how Audubon could “spend weeks at a time in the close confines of a flatboat” with the men, “sharing all these day-to-day experiences,” and still sell them like property.

Audubon was “dismissive” of the abolitionist movement in Great Britain, said Nobles. He wrote in a letter to his wife that the British “acted imprudently and too precipitously” in emancipating slaves in the West Indies and published a story — “The Runaway” — about returning an escaped slave to a plantation.

“Audubon was quite comfortable to accommodate institutional slavery both in his writings and his own life,” said Nobles.

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Audubon also stole the skulls of Native Americans from gravesites — a colonialist practice that disrespected the sacredness of burial and the dignity of the deceased. Audubon donated the skulls to Dr. Samuel George Morton, whose work based on skulls supported scientific racism, according to an article by Ann Fabian, a history professor emerita at Rutgers University.

"Black-billed Cuckoo," painted by John James Audubon in 1828, displayed in March at an exhibit at the Concord Museum in collaboration with Mass Audubon. Jonathan Wiggs/Globe Staff

As a result of this history, Seattle Audubon announced earlier this month that its leadership voted unanimously to remove “Audubon” from its name. Audubon is now crossed out on its website.

“The shameful legacy of the real John James Audubon, not the mythologized version, is antithetical to the mission of this organization and its values,” the chapter’s executive director, Claire Catania, said in a statement. “The challenges facing humans and birds alike demand that we build a radically inclusive coalition to address them.”

Elizabeth Gray, CEO of the National Audubon Society, said in a statement last week that the organization remains undecided about its name but respects the chapter’s right to make the change.

“Seattle Audubon is an independent chapter of the National Audubon Society and we respect their autonomy as they do their important work and represent themselves to the community that they serve,” Gray said. “The National Audubon Society is still in the process of a comprehensive exploration of John James Audubon and has not yet made a decision about our name.”

Seattle Audubon wasn’t the first organization to distance itself from the famed naturalist.

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In October 2021, the Audubon Naturalist Society — an environmental organization in Washington, D.C. — announced its intent to “update its name.” A month before that, a nonprofit in Sequim, Wash. changed its name from the Dungeness River Audubon Center to the Dungeness River Nature Center.

Though they aren’t planning a change, the leadership of Mass Audubon — which has 140,000 members — has acknowledged its namesake’s ties to slavery in the past.

In a statement in August 2020, Mass Audubon President David O’Neill wrote that despite having “no connection” to Audubon “other than in name,” the organization is “bound to him and his legacy as a slaveholder.”

“We, along with National Audubon Society and other independent Audubon Societies, are embarking on our own historical reckoning, fully examining our history, including our role in maintaining inequity,” O’Neill said at the time.

In a statement on Friday, O’Connor said that Mass Audubon is “focused on the important work of becoming an inclusive, equitable, and belonging institution by listening carefully to our members, centering marginalized voices in our work, and taking meaningful actions.”

Actions include addressing the impacts of climate change in vulnerable communities, establishing a program to provide and restore greenspaces in communities without access to nature, launching a fellowship for underrepresented minorities in the field of conservation, adopting a sliding scale for tuition, and diversifying its board of directors, he said.

Students and camp educator Adrian Oller, center right, examine wild sorrel during a hike at Mass Audubon's Boston Nature Center and Wildlife Sanctuary, located in Mattapan.Steven Senne/Associated Press

Interestingly, Audubon’s own racial background “has been the subject of some question,” said Nobles. Although Audubon claimed he was born in New Orleans, he was actually born in Haiti — then called Saint-Domingue — to a white father and a mistress on his plantation, who may have been Black.

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Nonetheless, “he tried to identify himself as a white man,” and “avoided any questions or suggestions ... that he might have had some degree of racial mixture,” said Nobles.

For Nobles, who wrote about the subject for Audubon Magazine, it’s important to acknowledge that Audubon was a supporter of slavery.

“I don’t think calling him ‘a man of his time’ is a legitimate approach,” he said. Even in the 1800s, “there were lots of people in the United States — men and women, Black and white — who did call for the abolition of slavery, who did see slavery as a sin.”

At the same time, Nobles recognizes the significance of his work.

“I think the ‘Birds of America’ — even though it has some flaws, ornithological and otherwise — is a remarkable work,” he said. “It’s hard to deny that.”

Until recently, Audubon was “a gold standard brand,” said Nobles, and “nobody questioned what the identity of the person might mean for the identity of the organization.” Now, the nonprofits named for him have to take into account “all sides of his identity,” he said.

“They have to take into account his very significant achievements to ornithology, to the very appreciation of birds as objects of beauty but also objects of science — and then think about what else we know about Audubon that creates some complications and contradictions,” said Nobles.

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Camille Caldera can be reached at camille.caldera@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @camille_caldera.