Photo depicting a Stellar's Jay (vibrant blue bird with dark head and head-feathers) sitting on a tree branch.

OPINION: What’s in a Name? Plenty, if It Belongs to a Slaveholder or White Supremacist

by Glenn Nelson


Imagine something meaningful to you and a person related to that thing who’s done something despicable. Then imagine naming some aspect of your meaningful something after that despicable person. Like naming an investment club after Bernie Madoff, film festival after Harvey Weinstein, or block-watch after Derek Chauvin.

The Pete Rose Fantasy Baseball League, anyone?

How would that make you feel about your significant something? I mean, what’s in a name anyway?

Plenty, I’d say. Consider the push for statue removals that intensified after the 2017 “Unite the Right” rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. A bunch of people didn’t suddenly lose their taste for “man on horse” bronze renderings. Men with names like Robert E. Lee, Stonewall Jackson, and Jefferson Davis were represented in those monuments to a Confederacy that fought a war to preserve the enslavement of Black Americans.

Mired in that legacy of slavery is John James Audubon, a man who has done bad things but is associated with an organization — an entire movement, really — presumed to be doing good. I make the statement about presumption with some hesitation, understanding that bird conservation may not exactly be the sexiest proposition among the young and the woke. Not yet, at least. But it does have long and deep underpinnings in the upper crust of American society, which may make it unsurprising that a namesake as tarnished as Audubon has endured.

Equally unsurprising, perhaps, is that a group of bird conservationists in Seattle is taking a lead in helping determine how long the Audubon name persists. On Monday, Seattle Audubon was among four large independent chapters that called on National Audubon Society leadership to be more proactive and transparent about the questions surrounding the Audubon name and legacy. Seattle Audubon drafted the letter, which was supported by chapters in New York City, the Bay Area, and Madison, Wisconsin.

In another statement last week, the Seattle chapter also supported the “Bird Names for Birds” movement to remove eponymous or “honorific” names of birds, including those memorializing slaveholders and white supremacists like Audubon. A year ago, for example, the American Ornithological Society changed the name of the McCown’s Longspur, previously named for Confederate Capt. John P. McCown, to the Thick-billed Longspur. Seattle Audubon, acting on a resolution passed by its board in July, also signaled its intent to reexamine its use of the Audubon name.

The coupling of the name issues was an intentional one-two punch, according to Claire Catania, Seattle Audubon’s executive director.

“It’s very easy to take a stand when you have no skin in the game,” Catania said in a Zoom interview. “And that’s really what I thought the case would have been if we had (only) endorsed bird names for birds. Whereas the one eponymous name that we actually have the power to do something about is our own. I didn’t want to just come out and take the easy road.”

Catania favors an even more difficult road — removing Audubon from her organization’s name. What Seattle Audubon favors organizationally still is being debated, she noted. Catania said she’s happy to have her mind changed, particularly by community leaders of color. So far, that’s not come close to happening.

National Audubon did not directly address an inquiry from the Emerald about its plans for the Audubon name. Instead, the organization issued this statement from Dr. Elizabeth Gray, its president and interim CEO:

“We denounce the racist actions of John James Audubon which are deeply troubling, and we recognize how painful that legacy is for Black, Indigenous, and people of color particularly those who are part of the Audubon and birding communities. Audubon is committed to building a bridge to a more equitable conservation movement and while the organization has begun to unpack John James Audubon’s racist past, there is a lot more work to do as we begin our next strategic planning process and search for a permanent CEO.”

In other words, Audubon’s national leadership believes the pain of BIPOC people associated with its network and activities is not as urgent as an executive search and further planning. 

The case against John James Audubon is as open and shut as it gets. He held and sold enslaved people, wrote critically of emancipation, stole human remains and sent skulls to a colleague who used them to assert white superiority, and committed fraud and plagiarism. He’s even been accused of fudging illustrations in his seminal work, The Birds of America. People have trotted out the “man of his time” defense, as has been argued for Sierra Club founder John Muir and his racist musings, but many of Audubon’s transgressions were called out during his lifetime.

Besides ambivalence, the most oft-cited reason to retain the Audubon name is the same weak rationale applied to other offensive monikers: It’s been that way so long, people can’t know it by any other. Ergo, we had sports names like the Redskins and Indians that overstayed their welcome like a deadbeat cousin.

“The name Audubon represents a powerful idea that has developed and evolved over more than a century, well expressed in our Society’s mission statement,” San Diego Audubon wrote in its November/December 2020 issue of Sketches Magazine. “From its formative years, the Audubon Society has been dedicated not only to appreciating nature but also, importantly, to protecting it. That is the legacy of the true founders of the movement dating back as early as 1886, and of the many thousands who have vigorously championed the cause of conservation under the Audubon banner over the past 134+ years.”

Truth is, Audubon has as much relevance today as Atari. I’d wager that a vast majority of Americans under, say, 50 years old don’t even know it exists. You might argue that “Audubon” has value as a brand — the nonprofit reported $161 million in revenue for its 2020 fiscal year — but only if it actually practiced the racial and social enlightenment that it has preached in recent years. That’s hardly the case.

On the same day that George Floyd was murdered in Minneapolis, a white woman weaponized race by calling the police on an innocent Black birdwatcher, Christian Cooper, who is on the board of Audubon’s New York chapter. The national organization’s response to the “Central Park Karen” incident was to issue a statement quoting — absurdly — a white female executive talking about the Black experience.

By then, the national organization had lost its only Black board member, Dr. J. Drew Lanham, who resigned and had a messy breakup with Deeohn Ferris, its second-ever vice president for equity, diversity, and inclusion. At the end of 2020, a story in Politico outlined allegations of a culture under Audubon president David Yarnold of retaliation, fear, and antagonism essentially toward employees who weren’t white and male. In April, an independent inquiry commissioned by the Audubon national board substantiated those claims as well as assertions that organizational decision making was “handled by a tight-knit group of white men.” Yarnold quickly resigned.

I am more than familiar with Audubon’s internal turmoil over race. I served two terms on the Audubon Washington board, from which I resigned over issues of racial insensitivity. I also worked with and was supported by Audubon National. That’s why I can say with high confidence that BIPOC members of the nonprofit’s national network remain conflicted over the Audubon legacy, as well as the organization’s commitment to equity, diversity, and inclusion (EDI) work.

Naming places and things after people seems so yesteryear, so very Euro and full of hubris. I spend a lot of time in Yellowstone National Park, whose second superintendent, Philetus W. Norris, was kind of the Donald Trump of his day. Norris didn’t have buildings and golf courses to which he could attach his name, but he did end up with an impressive take: three peaks, a geyser basin, and a mountain pass. Indigenous names and names from other Cultures of Color, are more descriptors — the difference between, say, Mount McKinley and Denali (“the high one”), a change made in 2015. Personal names risk an expiration date, when whatever the person stood for no longer is in favor. Or someone else comes along with a bigger checkbook.

In research for a trip I took in the spring, I was surprised to learn that Howard University is named after the white general, Oliver Otis Howard, who pursued forced relocation of the Nez Percé Tribe in 1877. As an encore, he vanquished the Bannocks, members of whom had been his scouts against the Nez Percé. Before entering the so-called “Indian Wars,” Howard headed the Freedmen’s Bureau, established after the Civil War to assist those who were formerly enslaved in the South. He used bureau funds for the unintended purpose of establishing his namesake university.

Today, Howard is among the best known of this country’s historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs). Vice President Kamala Harris is an alum. Yet, in this time of historical reckonings based on race, has Gen. Howard’s work with those formerly enslaved earned him a permanent pass for his role as a hunter of Native Americans? I asked one of my friends, another prominent, Black Howard alum, about this. They said it was not taught during their time at the university; they’d later discovered this part of history independently. Asked if the situation bears discussion, the alum responded, “It sure does.”

I’ve got a brilliant idea: Let’s stop naming places and things after people. Call it the Glenn Nelson Rule (just kidding). And let’s start undoing the names that cause harm or pain to BIPOC people and communities, beginning with Audubon. A federation of local organizations registered in 1905, calling itself the National Association of Audubon Societies for the Protection of Wild Birds and Animals. Today it’s known simply as the National Audubon Society. Remove the offending word from the original name and you have the NASPWBA. Maybe shorten that to NASPBA and you’ve got a little more rhythm to it.

It’s what the world needs now: More rhythm and fewer white supremacists.


Glenn Nelson, a contributing columnist, is a Japanese American journalist and lifetime South Seattle resident who founded trailposse.com and has won numerous national and regional awards for his writings about race. Follow him @trailposse on Twitter or @thetrailposse on Instagram.

📸 Featured Image: Steller’s Jay, named for George Willhelm Steller. (Photo by Delpixel/Shutterstock.com)

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