2021 | News

‘Unsavory’ Audubon legacy prompts Chevy Chase environmental group to change name

Will get feedback over the next year in search for an inclusive name

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The Audubon Naturalist Society announced Monday that it is changing its name, because of the troubling history of birding pioneer John James Audubon.

Courtesy Audubon Naturalist Society

A local nonprofit dedicated to environmental conservation and education said Monday that it is changing its name, due to the troubling history of noted birding pioneer John James Audubon.

Lisa Alexander, executive director of the Audubon Naturalist Society, based in Chevy Chase, explained in an interview that the group — which is independent from the National Audubon Society, a national nonprofit based in New York City — has not decided on a new name.

She said the decision stems in part from decisions she and colleagues made roughly a decade ago to create more programming and opportunities to be more inclusive, accessible and equitable in the Audubon Naturalist Society’s overall mission.

Audubon was a prominent North American wildlife artist who lived from 1785 to 1851. He is considered an ornithology expert, documenting and drawing more than 400 birds in his book, “The Birds of America.”

After his death, however, research on the National Audubon Society showed he enslaved Black people and opposed emancipation, and he stole human remains. He also likely committed academic fraud and plagiarism, research shows.

Alexander called Audubon a “pretty unsavory character,” especially after the society assembled a task force to look into his history.

She said that for about the past 10 years, the nonprofit has tried to establish programs, events and practices that make sure its environmental and nature conservation and educational offerings are more inclusive and representative of the Washington, D.C.. region and those who work in nature.

A few examples are “Taking Nature Black,” an event that highlights the work of Black conservationists nationwide, and “Naturally Latinos,” a similar event that highlights the work of Latino conservationists, Alexander said.

“I think for us … we decided to change our programming and our outreach first, and the name change came naturally after that,” Alexander said about the timing of dropping Audubon’s name from the organization. 

She added that the Audubon Naturalist Society was founded in 1897, and has always been independent from the National Audubon Society. That national nonprofit was founded in 1905 and has around 500 local chapters.

Chandler Lennon, a spokesman for the National Audubon Society, wrote in an email on Monday afternoon that he could not comment on whether the national nonprofit might change its name, or how many of its local chapters have done so.

During the next 12 months, Alexander said, she and colleagues are going to listen to community members about what the nonprofit’s new name should be and how to reflect the diversity, values and natural landscape of the greater Washington, D.C., region.

“I feel pretty certain that I don’t think we’re going to name ourselves after another human,” she said.

Steve Bohnel can be reached at steve.bohnel@bethesdamagazine.com