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CT Audubon Society Addresses a Mixed Legacy on Race

John James Audubon's legacy as a famed ornithologist and artist is tempered by the fact that he owned and traded slaves. (Audubon Society)
John James Audubon's legacy as a famed ornithologist and artist is tempered by the fact that he owned and traded slaves. (Audubon Society)
August 28, 2020

HARTFORD, Conn. -- The Connecticut Audubon Society is facing up to its mixed legacy on racism, with an open letter and an essay acknowledging that its namesake was a slave owner.

John James Audubon was a 19th century ornithologist and painter who extensively documented America's bird population.

Patrick Comins, executive director of the Connecticut Audubon Society, released an open letter on Thursday, calling Audubon a seminal figure in the birding world, and an artistic genius - who nonetheless had a terrible dark side.

"He owned slaves, he traded slaves and he sold slaves," said Comins. "And he even proudly told the story of having captured some escaped former slaves and returning them back to their former masters at gunpoint."

The current reawakening on issues of racial justice led the National Audubon Society to publish an essay on John James Audubon's troubled history. The nonprofit said it's also working to increase diversity on its staff and among its membership.

Earlier this year, a white woman was caught on video, calling the police on an African American board member of the National Audubon Society, who was bird-watching in New York City's Central Park.

Comins said the incident was a wakeup call on issues of inclusivity, accessibility, diversity and equity.

"We all share this planet, and the health of the plant is ultimately critical to the survival of our species," said Comins. "So, we need to be more inclusive, and get a greater variety of voices involved in the issues of conservation of nature."

He added that the Audubon Society presents field trips for kids across the state and encourages city-dwellers to connect with nature at prime birding spots. Urban locations nearby include East Rock, Lighthouse Place and East Shore Parks in New Haven; and Keney and Riverside Parks in Hartford.

Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - CT