Mass Audubon Confronts Legacy Of Its Namesake As Nation Reckons With Race

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The Audubon Boston Nature Center in Mattapan. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
The Audubon Boston Nature Center in Mattapan. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The Massachusetts Audubon Society's Boston Nature Center in Mattapan offers a home to more than 150 species of birds. And a winter afternoon offers up evidence of a few of them: Three-toed footprints of wild turkeys dot snowy paths like small dinosaur tracks; and in the leafless trees, robins and white-throated sparrows chirp as they flit from branch to branch.

A black-capped chickadee flies away from a bird feeder after eating at the Audubon Boston Nature Center in Mattapan. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
A black-capped chickadee flies away from a bird feeder after eating at the Audubon Boston Nature Center in Mattapan. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

The Mattapan sanctuary has been around since the late 1990s, but Mass Audubon itself is more than 100 years old and now owns nearly 40,000 acres of land throughout the state.

The society gets its name from renowned conservationist and naturalist John James Audubon, who was famous for his vivid paintings of American birds.

John James Audubon (Courtesy National Audubon Society)
A painting of John James Audubon. (Courtesy National Audubon Society)

But Mass Audubon president David O'Neill says the society is now grappling with another piece of its namesake's story.

"He was a slaveholder," says O'Neill. "That's clear. He was also a racist."

O'Neill says the protests against racial injustice following George Floyd's killing last year led the society to reevaluate and retell Audubon's history.

An essay on the organization's website now details how Audubon's family bought and sold enslaved people in the early 1800s and how Audubon himself spoke out against slave emancipation and abolitionist movements. It also tells how Audubon sold two enslaved men who journeyed with him on a business trip from Kentucky to New Orleans.

O'Neill says the society got another wake-up call from the confrontation between Christian Cooper, a Black bird-watcher, and Amy Cooper, a white woman, in New York's Central Park the same weekend Floyd was killed.

"That notion that everyone is welcomed to nature is one that's not necessarily true," O'Neill admits. "We've been focusing a lot of our time and attention on how do you create equitable access to nature."

Working with O'Neill on that mission is Patricia Spence, one of four Black members of Mass Audubon's 28-person board of directors.

"My passion with all this is, 'How do I get more people to a Boston Nature Center that literally live around here?' " she says. "It can't be an ad in the newspaper. It's got to be even more outreach where oftentimes it's just one-on-one."

Patricia Spence, president of the Urban Farming Institute. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)
Patricia Spence, from the Mass Audubon board of directors. (Robin Lubbock/WBUR)

Spence has been coming to these grounds since she was 10 years old and still lives just down the road in Mattapan, a heavily Black and immigrant neighborhood.

"The key is they don't know about it," says Spence. "And there are people we know, and it could be a stone's throw away, that still don't know we're here."

Spence works closely with Julie Brandlen, Mass Audubon's Boston region director, to bring community groups to Mass Audubon's sanctuaries to encourage them to join.

Brandlen says once people know about their properties, they often return.

"It's a fallacy to think that people of color don't come to nature centers," she says. "Nature is available to all of us, right?"

Mass Audubon says it's not tracking its members' demographic data at this time.

But Brandlen says the society is prioritizing diversity in its staff and education programs, including enrollment in the Boston Nature Center’s preschool and internships like its Youth Leaders Program.

Children from the Audubon Boston Nature Center Preschool program play in the snow just before parents come to pick them up at the end of their day. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)
Children from the Audubon Boston Nature Center preschool program play in the snow. (Jesse Costa/WBUR)

David O'Neill also says the society will work with tribal communities to tell the stories of indigenous groups that once lived on its land.

He sees Mass Audubon striving more for the spirit of its Founding Mothers Harriet Lawrence Hemenway and Minna B. Hall — who were both abolitionists in the 1800s — than the man they named their organization after.

But O’Neill says Aubudon’s history should no longer be overlooked, especially in this moment.

"Because we carry the name Audubon," he says, "we feel responsible for understanding, telling, sharing all of that history. Not running from it, but learning from it."

This segment aired on February 26, 2021.


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Khari Thompson Producer, Radio Boston
Khari Thompson is a producer for Radio Boston.



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