Midwestern chapters of National Audubon Society drop ‘Audubon’ name, citing racist views of organization’s namesake

Sergio Montanez/The Times Herald/USA Today Network

Three Midwestern chapters of the National Audubon Society, a nonprofit bird conservation group, are dropping the “Audubon” branding over namesake John James Audubon’s racist views and ties to slavery.

The society’s chapters in Detroit, Chicago and Madison, Wisconsin, have announced they will now be known as chapters of the “Bird Alliance.”

“It was important for us to collaborate with other Audubon chapters — especially those in our region — in adopting a name that unifies our members and unifies us as organizations,” Gretchen Abrams, executive director of the Detroit chapter, said in a press release.

John James Audubon was an 19th-century ornithologist, naturalist and painter who owned slaves, opposed abolitionism and exploited Black and Indigenous people, according to a re-examination of the his life and legacy published by Audubon’s biographer in the society’s magazine in 2020.

In 1834, Audubon “wrote to his wife … that the British government had ‘acted imprudently and too precipitously’ in emancipating enslaved people in its West Indian possessions,” according to the article.

Audubon also occasionally “relied” on Black and Indigenous people to observe birds and collect specimens for his studies and did not credit or name them in his writings, the article said.

Abrams told CNN the Detroit Bird Alliance decided to change its name because the city has a large population of people of color.

“We really felt like we were not going to ever be able to be inclusive and invite everyone to the work to protect birds if we were not more clear about our mission,” she said.

The Detroit chapter said it will adopt the new name in January 2024, to give the organization time to rebrand and change their website.

“We felt like we had to make a decision for ourselves as a chapter on who we wanted to be, what we wanted to represent, and what kind of title represented us in the work that we do,” she said. “As long as we have anything stopping us from having everyone in the fight for birds, birds lose.”

The Chicago Bird Alliance debuted its new name Friday by changing the branding on its website. The organization said it plans to pursue a legal change over the next few months.

“[Audubon] contributed a lot to the bird world, but also he was reinforcing things like slavery and systemic racism and scientific racism,” Matt Igleski, executive director of the Chicago Bird Alliance told CNN.

Igleski explained the new name is also clearer to those who may be unfamiliar with the society’s history and puts the organization’s mission of bird conservation at the forefront.

The Madison, Wisconsin, chapter, now known as the Badgerland Bird Alliance, voted unanimously to drop the “Audubon” name in December 2022. The chapter held a vote in late September to approve the new name.

“We want to develop a deep brand recognition that really focuses on the work that we do,” Matt Reetz, executive director of the Badgerland Bird Alliance, told CNN.

In August, the San Francisco-area chapter of the society also changed its name to the Golden Gate Bird Alliance.

In a March open letter, the National Audubon Society announced it would not change its name despite the disapproval of several local chapters.

In the letter, Elizabeth Gray, the organization’s CEO, explained the climate crisis was a more urgent priority than changing its branding, but said the society would set aside $25 million over the next five years towards a diversity initiative within the organization and its conservation efforts.

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