From KOMO News (h/t Williams), we have this headline on a short article (click to read):
. . . and that tells it all. An excerpt:
The Seattle chapter of the Audubon Society says it is dropping “Audubon” from its name because the man the organization is named after was a slave owner and opposed abolition.
KNKX reports that Seattle Audubon is one the largest chapters of the National Audubon Society, the nonprofit dedicated to protecting birds and their habitats, but Seattle Audubon is one of the largest in the country.
Earlier this month, the board voted to change the chapter’s name because the man the organization is named after – illustrator, painter and bird lover John James Audubon, author of the seminal work “The Birds of America” – owned enslaved people.
J. Drew Lanham, a former board member of the National Audubon Society and a wildlife ecology professor at Clemson University, called the move courageous.
Lanham, who has written about Audubon and left the national chapter over concerns the nonprofit was not doing enough about racial equity, says organizations need to grapple with what to do about problematic monuments.
(Let me remark that I don’t see the move as “courageous”, except in the sense that it may cost the Society members. It takes no moral courage these days to remove someone’s name from a Society because he enslaved people.)
There is no doubt that Audubon owned slaves; the Audubon Society itself admitted it in an article on the Society’s website. And that is an unmixed bad thing to do. Short of killing someone, making them into a slave is about the worst thing you can do: you’re taking away their freedom and treating them as property, for no reason (in the antebellum US) other than their race.
The question at hand, though, is whether effacing Audubon’s name from the Society and branches of the Society is something that is worth doing. I’ve pondered this at length, and for a while I could have gone either way.
My criteria for deciding whether someone should be “erased” for having done immoral stuff has alway been twofold. If both criteria aren’t met, there’s no reason to keep a name.
1.) The name or honorific is there for the good things people did. (That rules out, by the way, Confederate statues, though I think it might be better if they were “contexualized”; see below).
2.) The person’s life constituted a net good for the world. This is hard to determine, since “well being” is measured in many currencies.
It’s clear that Audubon passes the test for #1. The problematic part is #2. Is slave-holding so bad that it can’t ever be compensated for by the good someone does? Most people seem to think that George Washington and Thomas Jeffrerson, who were also enslavers, did sufficient good to warrant keeping their names on things like the Jefferson Memorial and the Washington Monument (not to mention the $1 bill or Washington, D.C.
Does Audubon fall in their class? I don’t think so, but he certainly did good things, awakening naturalism and conservation impulses that resulted in the Society that bears his name.
It’s a tough call, but I decided that the name “Audubon” should stay because of two considerations:
a.) You can and should contextualize his name, letting people know that Audubon did things that were seen as immoral even in his time. (There were plenty of abolitionists.) If you can contextualize history rather than erasing it, I’d prefer the former.
b.) Taking Audubon’s name off societies and the like is a performative, symbolic act that doesn’t do anything to achieve racial equality. If you want people to know about the bad stuff in history, contextualize it and condemn it rather than erase it. I would feel more strongly about removing the name if doing so was more than a symbolic act.
So my overall take—an I pondered this a lot vis-à-vis Audubon—is to keep his name on the Society and on Awards (see the list of distinguished awardees of the Audubon Medal, given for conservation efforts); but be sure that people know his history.
Readers may disagree, and feel free to do so in the comments.