New York birders reject Audubon name over slavery past

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New York birders reject Audubon name over slavery past
A birdwatching tour walks through Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Nov. 12, 2011. NYC Audubon will drop Audubon from its name over concerns that the racist legacy of the 19th-century naturalist and illustrator John James Audubon has become a barrier to its efforts to become more inclusive. (Piotr Redlinski/The New York Times)

by Winnie Hu

NEW YORK, NY.- NYC Audubon will drop Audubon from its name over concerns that the racist legacy of 19th-century naturalist and illustrator John James Audubon has become a barrier to its efforts to become more inclusive.

The conservation group, which is a chapter of the National Audubon Society, made the decision Monday by a majority vote of its board of directors. The vote was called after the national organization reached the opposite decision last week, concluding that “the organization transcends one person’s name.”

The New York City chapter did not agree. “Frankly, we were surprised and disappointed because our internal review found that the Audubon name was problematic for our organization because of its deeply negative connotations,” said Karen Benfield, the president of the board of the New York City chapter.

It joins a handful of other Audubon chapters, including those in Seattle and Chicago, as well as other organizations like Nature Forward (formerly the Audubon Naturalist Society) that have distanced themselves from Audubon, who held workers in slavery and harbored racist views toward Black and Indigenous people.

Jessica Wilson, the executive director of NYC Audubon, said its decision reflected an eight-month assessment. While acknowledging Audubon’s contributions, she said his name had “ultimately served as a barrier to getting all New Yorkers involved.”

The chapter will begin a process to come up with a new name that is more inclusive and welcoming, Wilson added.

The Audubon name has historical significance in New York. In the 1840s, Audubon and his family lived in a clapboard house on 14 acres of woodland along the Hudson River in what is now known as Washington Heights.

The New York City chapter, which was founded in 1979, has grown to more than 10,000 members and serves thousands more with free programs, including bird outings, festivals, lectures and a nature center on Governors Island.

Benfield said that board members had wrestled with concerns about the costs of rebranding without the Audubon name. But she added that it was more important to reach a wider and more diverse audience at a time when North American bird populations have plummeted. “The more people who hear our message and become inspired to help, the better,” she said.

The New York City chapter will remain affiliated with the national organization, from which it receives about $30,000 a year, a fraction of its annual budget of $1.8 million. Beyond the financial ties, Wilson said, it is imperative to continue collaborating with the national organization as well as other chapters since many birds migrate through New York from other areas.

“Each chapter has the autonomy and authority to determine their name to best serve their needs,” said Elizabeth Gray, the CEO of the National Audubon Society, in a statement Tuesday. “We will continue to support and work closely with chapters and move forward as one unified community.”

In recent years, the New York City chapter has increasingly recruited people of color for its staff and programs, including naturalists and educators who lead bird outings. This spring, it will release a Spanish-English field guide and start a program, “NYCHA in Nature,” with bird outings at the city’s public housing complexes and nearby parks. “The idea is to encourage residents of public housing to appreciate the nature right in their own backyard and take steps to protect it,” Wilson said.

In addition, the group has set a goal of diversifying its board, which as recently as 2015 was all white, according to Benfield. Currently, 40% of the 24 board members are people of color, and the goal is to reach 50% by 2025.

Christian Cooper, 59, a board member who is the host of “Extraordinary Birder,” a National Geographic show, said that many people do not yet know about Audubon’s racist history. But when they find out, it becomes a barrier to getting involved, particularly in communities of color.

“The nation has changed, the demographic has changed — and yet, birding is overwhelmingly white,” he said. “That’s not going to work if there’s going to be a constituency to fight for the birds so it goes directly to our mission.”

Cooper, who is Black, experienced racism himself while birding in Central Park in 2020 when a white woman called 911 and falsely claimed that he was threatening her after Cooper asked that she keep her dog on a leash.

Another board member, Angie Co, 44, an architect and entrepreneur who is Chinese American, said that she felt strongly about changing the Audubon name after learning more about Audubon’s history because “once you know, you can’t unknow.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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