My criteria for deciding whether a name should be kept, or a statue left up, are twofold: the good that the person’s life did outweighs the bad, and the name or statue is in honor of the good.
Although there have been calls for John James Audubon’s name to be taken off everything (including his Society), I’ve decided his name is worth keeping. Yes, he was a slaveholder, with nine humans as his possessions, and of course that’s immoral. (He also held white supremacist views.) But George Washington and Jefferson each had many more slaves, yet we’re not hearing calls to rename Washington, D.C. or tear down the Jefferson Memorial.
How does one balance being an enslaver against being one of the founders of ornithology, a naturalist who named many species, and an inspiration for conservation? You can’t. They’re apples and oranges. So you make a judgment call, and my own call was that Audubon still deserves to be honored. Yes, by all means call attention to the slaves he held, but I never favored (as some did) renaming the Audubon Society.
Neither did the Society itself, as the Washington Post just announced (click screenshot to read):
From the article:
The National Audubon Society’s 27-person board of directors voted to retain its current name during a Zoom meeting on Monday after more than a year of deliberating and gathering feedback from both members and outsiders. Susan Bell, chair of the board, declined to provide a breakdown of the final vote.
“The name has come to represent not one person, but a broader love of birds and nature,” Bell said in a phone interview. “And yet we must reckon with the racist legacy of John James Audubon, the man.”
Keeping the name does not of course mean that the Audubon Society endorses slavery. In fact, they reckon it correctly: as a blot on the man’s name. But the Society decided that the name represents a lot of good things, and I won’t criticize them for keeping it. Neither will I criticize those who say the name has to go, for they’ve made a judgement call the other way, though Jefferson and Washington have not (yet) been erased.