[John James Audubon School # 33, 500 Webster Avenue. Photo: David Kramer, 6/25/21]
A few weeks ago, I submitted a letter to the editor proposing a name change for the John James Audubon School # 33 on 500 Webster Avenue. The Democrat and Chronicle chose not to publish the letter.
The editorial editorial decision of the D & C was not without merit. The letter is flawed. The initial topic is the proposed name change of the NRCS, one set to be made in July, but the text abruptly swerves to another RCSD school and its namesake, the John James Audubon School.
The intent is to be provocative. Most readers probably do not know there is a John James Audubon School in the RCSD, and if they think about Audubon they might think of ornithography but not race slavery. The quick boom-boom of potentially unfamiliar information is hoped to startle the reader into feeling the significance of my proposal to rename the Audubon school as the Michelle Obama Academy. Apparently, the editorial board thought its readers would be more confused than provoked, or that the topic itself was unlikely to sufficiently capture reader attention.
For context missing in the letter, in a June 22nd front page article, “RCSD looks to rename Nathaniel Rochester Middle School 3; suggestions solicited”, Justin Murphy reported that the Rochester City School District is soliciting new names for Nathaniel Rochester Middle School Number 3, a response to student and faculty concerns about honoring the city founder given his extensive participation in the trade of enslaved people. The NRMS student body is overwhelmingly Black and Latino.Murphy notes that students and faculty members have been calling for a name change for several years. “The community, parents, students and teachers are trying to change the name of the school to anything but that,” one school counselor told the school board in 2020. “They all believe that the name Nathaniel Rochester … needs to go.”
I am not a member of the NRCS community, but feel the name change is more than valid. Each generation should determine who it wants to honor. I think that, clearly, changing of the NRCS has deeper consequences than changing the name of the Audubon School. Nonetheless, if slaveholding is to be considered as a criteria for naming or renaming schools, then the Audubon School need be considered.
Earlier this year, in Should the RCSD change the names of some schools? The Alexander von Humboldt Academy instead of the Henry Hudson School?, I discussed various name change possibilities, including re-naming the Audubon School, the Michelle Obama Academy.
At that time, I discussed Audubon’s racist legacy with one of the school’s house administrators, Thomas Pappas. Given Audubon’s time period, Tom was saddened but not shocked by Audubon’s slaveholding, adding that after the pandemic, the issue will be addressed.
The height of a pandemic is not a moment when school name changes are paramount. That said, the upcoming July RCSD board decision on NRCS is a moment to also decide on Audubon.
Recent scholarship on Audubon
Academic and public interest in Audubon’s racist legacy can to the forefront in 2020 when the Audubon magazine and the Audubon organization began a reexamine the life and legacy of the organization’s namesake as [the Audubon society] “chart[s] a course toward racial equity .”
In “The Myth of John James Audubon”(July 31, 2020), historian Gregory Nobles, a Contributor to the Audubon Magazine and author of John James Audubon: The Nature of the American Woodsman (UPenn Press, 2017) writes of Audubon:
The National Audubon Society’s namesake looms large, like his celebrated bird paintings. But he also enslaved people and held white supremacist views, reflecting ethical failings that it is time to bring to the fore.