Reflections on John James Audubon

The Black Lives Matter movement has caused Maine Audubon to look inward at its own role in inequity and racial inequality, just as it has for millions of Americans. For the hundreds of Audubon societies around the country, that reflection has included a renewed analysis of the character of our namesake: John James Audubon.

When George Bird Grinnell founded an organization to work for the protection of wild birds in 1886, he named it after famous bird painter John James Audubon. Grinnell read Audubon’s ornithological works, lived near Audubon’s old estate in New York, and attended a school run by Audubon’s wife, Lucy. Under the Audubon name, Grinnell’s organization and its growing number of chapters have achieved incredible conservation successes, a tradition that Maine Audubon is proud to continue.

Though John James Audubon was an inspiration to Grinnell and to a public fascinated with his artwork and ornithological study, he had major character flaws. Audubon was a racist, an unrepentant slave owner who bought and sold more than a dozen human beings during his life and railed against the abolitionist cause in the U.S. and abroad.

Maine Audubon, and the other Audubon organizations around the country, are now asking themselves what it means to carry the name of such a man. The choices Audubon made during his life abhor us, and run counter to our dedication to anti-racism, diversity, and inclusion. At the same time, the work of Audubon societies has made the Audubon name far more than an honorific, but a symbol in the minds of Americans of conservation, education, and environmentalism. We were named in honor of him, but we have created a new definition for Audubon.

In the coming weeks, we will be looking into our own history as well as charting our future, one in which we acknowledge and recognize inequity inherent in many environmental policies, and work to be more inclusive, diverse, and equitable both internally and in Maine’s communities.

For an in-depth exploration of Audubon’s complex legacy, please read this essay, The Myth of John James Audubon, by historian and Audubon biographer Gregory Nobles, published on the National Audubon website, and the article “What Do We Do About John James Audubon? by J. Drew Lanham, published in Audubon Magazine.