A leading US conservation group, the Audubon Naturalist Society (ANS), has announced it will change its name, due to the “pain” caused by the 19th-century ornithologist and slaveholder John James Audubon.
The group, which holds wildlife sanctuaries across Washington DC, Virginia and Maryland, said that it had become clear its name did not connect to its diverse set of programmes and that some members and volunteers had objected.
“The mission and vision of the organisation have not changed,” said Lisa Alexander, executive director of ANS.
“The deliberate and thoughtful decision to change our name is part of our ongoing commitment to creating a larger and more diverse community of people who treasure the natural world and work to preserve it. It has become clear that this will never be fully possible with the current name.”
Originally called the Audubon Society of the District of Columbia, ANS was set up in 1897 as part of a wave of such groups seeking to protect bird species then under threat from hunters.
Audubon achieved lasting fame for his detailed studies and illustrations of American birds, made in the early 19th century.
More recently, he has come under scrutiny for his buying and selling of enslaved people in the 1820s; for his objections to the abolitionist movement; and for writings that portrayed black and indigenous people as inferior to whites.
Audubon, who was born in modern-day Haiti but moved to the US before dying in New York in 1851, took five human skulls from a battlefield in Texas and sent them to Samuel Morton, a doctor who attempted to determine differences that he claimed showed varying intelligence levels between races.
“We can and must do better to address equity and racial justice in everything we do,” said Diane Wood, incoming board president of ANS. “We are deeply invested in breaking down barriers and acknowledging our part in an exclusionary past.”
ANS said a new name will be chosen following a “deliberate and thoughtful process of listening and learning” with its members and other nature enthusiasts.
The National Audubon Society, the largest group to still hold Audubon’s name, ha acknowledged his actions but has not committed to changing its title.