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The National Audubon Society speaks out against a namesake who owns slaves and has a white supremacist past


The National Audubon Society re-examines and confronts its namesake's racist and slave-owning past.

The nonprofit environmental organization dedicated to the protection of birds and other wildlife was founded in 1905 and named in honor of the French-American ornithologist John James Audubon.

Audubon is perhaps best known for illustrating birds in their natural habitats and publishing his book Birds of America as a series in sections between 1827 and 1838.

But an often glossed over part of Audubon's story is that he owned many slaves, sold them to others, and considered black and indigenous peoples to be inferior to whites.

In a magazine, the company said it was planning to pronounce and condemn Audubon's past, publish a new biography with its “ethical mistakes,” and highlight other founders of the organization.

In a magazine, the company said it was speaking out against its namesake and condemned its slave-owned and white supremacist past. Pictured: Audubon in a print published in 1851

The National Audubon Society, dedicated to the protection of birds, is named after the French-American ornithologist John James Audubon (left and right). In a magazine, the company said it was speaking out against its namesake and condemned its slave-owned and white supremacist past

The company has written down its biography of Audubon and plans to publish a new one about its "ethical omissions". Pictured: Anna Hyatt Huntington stands to the right of the Hispanic Society of America library on Audubon Terrace

The company has written down its biography of Audubon and plans to publish a new one about its "ethical omissions". Pictured: Anna Hyatt Huntington stands to the right of the Hispanic Society of America library on Audubon Terrace

"We strongly condemn the role that John James Audubon played in enslaving the blacks and maintaining the white supremacist culture," the company writes.

The organization says it has removed Audubon's biography and is replacing it with content that "does not ignore the challenging parts of its identity and actions."

"Audubon did not found the National Audubon Society, but it remains part of its identity," writes Audubon historian Dr. Gregory Nobles.

Audubon started to own slaves in their late 20s or early 30s and had at least nine while living in Henderson, Kentucky.

The family sold them in the late 1810s, but this was not their last slave trade.

The company says that in early 1819, Audubon sailed from Mississippi to New Orleans with two enslaved men and sold both the men and the boat.

He owned slaves again in the 1820s, but sold them in 1830 when the family moved to England.

Audubon is best known for publishing his book Birds of America (pictured) as a series in sections between 1827 and 1838

Audubon is best known for publishing his book Birds of America (pictured) as a series in sections between 1827 and 1838

Audubon was also against the abolition.

Society reveals that in 1834 he wrote to his wife Lucy Bakewell Audubon that British officials "acted wisely and quickly" after slave emancipation in the West Indies.

He painted himself as "the savior of a fleeting family and defender of slave owners" in a story called "The Runaway".

In the story, Audubon, who was hunting, confronts an armed black man in Louisiana, but neither shoots the other.

He writes that the man and his family had escaped slavery and lived in the swamp, and that Audubon brought them back to their first master's house and asked the plantation owner to buy them back from the family he had also sold.

The story ends with the black family "being made as happy as slaves are generally in this country" – still enslaved, but supposedly happy.

His lack of appreciation for African Americans and Indians who helped him write Birds of America is also evident.

These groups often helped Audubon collect specimens and provided information about some of the birds that appear in his book.

"Although Audubon found black and indigenous peoples scientifically useful, he never accepted them as socially or racially equal," writes the company.

When Audubon moved to the United States, his family owned and sold several slaves and spoke out against the abolition. Pictured: Audubon, photographed by Mathew Brady in 1850

When Audubon moved to the United States, his family owned and sold several slaves and spoke out against the abolition. Pictured: Audubon, photographed by Mathew Brady in 1850

He never recognized black or indigenous peoples who helped him write his book, and called black enslaved men "hands". Pictured; Audubon

He never recognized black or indigenous peoples who helped him write his book, and called black enslaved men "hands". Pictured; Audubon

In a letter dated December 1831, he described a boat expedition with six enslaved black and three white men – the black men whom he called "hands".

It further shows that he saw African Americans as nothing more than helpers for the adventures of the whites.

He even painted his mother, who was one of his father's lovers on a sugar plantation in Haiti, as a rich man "Lady of Spanish Descent" from Louisiana, who was killed during a "Negro Uprising".

The National Audubon Society is not the only institution that is faced with a day of reckoning because of its past.

Last month, the Sierra Club, the country's oldest conservation organization, said it would no longer blind blind pioneer John Muir and other founders.

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