by Roger Witherspoon
(Roger Witherspoon, a member of the ANIMALS 24-7 board of directors, has reported about environmental issues for more than 50 years; developed the global Save The Tiger program for the Exxon Corporation; and cofounded the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists, the first chapter of the National Association of Black Journalists.)
John James Audubon was not a conservationist. He was a creature of his time. A slave owner who could paint, and who killed a lot of birds so he could paint them accurately, sell the pictures for money and coincidentally, provide a foundation for serious scientists or conservationists to study. His work led to the formation of the Audubon Society, which has done a lot of good.
Walker Elliot Randolph
I don’t speak for all Black Americans.
But in my own slice of history, my great grandfather Walker Elliot Randolph was a slave on the Randolph plantation in eastern Virginia, trained to work as a farrier.
As a rule, overseers on the Randolph plantation––and the farms of the neighboring Toneys, Creaseys, and Seays––did not whip their slaves and kept families together.
But there was a class of itinerant overseers who more or less made their own rules.
One of these hit Walker with his whip in 1856. Walker, in turn, hit him in the head with the mallet he used for shaping horseshoes. The head lost that bout.
45th U.S. Colored Regiment
Walker took the dead man’s horse and rode northwest, making his way to Pennsylvania, where he joined the cavalry as a farrier. He then changed his last name, dropping the slave moniker of Randolph and adopting Smith, which denoted his profession.
In 1864 he moved to the 45th U.S. Colored Regiment, and fought with them through to Appomattox, mustering out in October 1865.
He then rode back to Virginia, reclaimed his family––which consisted of two sons and two daughters––and got some land, built a forge, and added two more sons and a daughter, born free.
That lasted until 1876, when the Supreme Court issued its Cruickshank decision, decreeing that whites had a right to band together and kill Black men, women, and children. That launched a 70-year Ku Klux Klan reign of terror which initially targeted Black businessmen, educators, and former soldiers.
Ku Klux Klan
One June Sunday, six Klansmen in robes and hoods rode up to the house and blew Walker away in his dining room. The youngest son, Dabney, then five years old, would go to his grave with buckshot in his leg.
The Klansmen wore hoods. But they were attacking the blacksmith. His sons knew the horses and who owned them since they had made the shoes. The oldest son died killing eight Klansmen.
The second son killed three and took off. It was assumed he was caught and killed by a posse. But in fact, he escaped, and though the family never knew, he made his way to Detroit, where he had a son he named Walker Felix Smith.
Sugar Ray Robinson
He had a son in 1923 he named after his grandfather, Walker Elliot Smith. During the Depression, his family would move to New York City looking for work, and he would grow up befriending the daughters of Walker Elliot Smith, the son of Walker’s third son. After high school, the young Walker became a professional boxer with the ring name Sugar Ray Robinson.
After those three Klansmen were killed, the Klan ordered Walker’s widow and remaining children––three daughters and two young boys––to leave. After they departed, ending up in the Bronx, the Klan burned the house down. But they left the forge, which was taken over by a white smith.
In 1910 Dabney went back to Virginia and killed the Seay brothers, who had been among the Klansmen who killed his father. The final score was two dead Smiths and 13 dead Klansmen.
“The Michigan Klan came for me”
I was brought up hearing Civil war stories from the perspective of the Black troops who fought them. Theirs was the opposite of the Lost Cause. They fought for the future. They went into each encounter knowing it was win or die: Confederates did not take Black prisoners.
Those they caught, usually wounded, were used for bayonet and sword practice and butchered.
The Black troops weren’t so barbaric––but they didn’t take Confederate prisoners, either.
I was taught from the time I was 10 never to back down from the KKK. I was to kill as many as possible so they would think twice about attacking anyone else in the family.
I remembered that when, at age 17, the Michigan Klan came for me for integrating the engineering school at the University of Michigan. They regretted it.
John James Audubon was not like Nathan Bedford Forest
It has been a long time since the Civil War, and longer still since John James Audubon died fourteen years before the Civil War.
For the National Audubon Society to continue operating in his name is not the same as the monuments to confederate soldiers, segregationists, and butchers like Nathan Bedford Forest, the former Confederate general who founded the Ku Klux Klan, which were put up in recent decades with the sole purpose of insulting and possibly intimidating Black citizens and reassuring White citizens that they are superior.
“Just another white guy with slaves”
It is understandable that there are many Blacks who want nothing to do with former slaveholders and white supremacists, even if that’s not what they were known for.
In that regard, I think it is wise of the National Audubon Society to allow affiliates to choose different names while maintaining their relationship. Audubon was not, for example, in the class of Dr. J. Marion Sims––sometimes dubbed the Father of Gynecology––who developed his various techniques for surgery on women’s private parts by experimenting, without anesthesia, on Black slave women. He was a butcher whose techniques were copied by Nazi doctors in World War II. New York City removed his statue in 2018.
I don’t lump all people whose ideas I disagree with into the same single group.
If I was around in 1850 I’d have ignored Audubon as just another white guy with slaves. He was a member of a pretty big club. And I’d have joined the Union Army and learned how to kill.
But I wasn’t born back then. And so I acknowledge the good he did, and accept the fact that otherwise, for his era, he was just an average white guy.
As for George Washington, Thomas Jefferson et al, I don’t fault them for being flawed. I credit them with creating the first nation built on an idea, rather than race, religion, or an accident of geography.
The job after that was to make America live up to its ideals. Back in 1977 I became the first Black editor at the New York Daily News which, with a daily circulation of 2.3 million, was the nation’s largest newspaper. My first day in that chair two reporters walked up to me and the taller one, a sportswriter, said “I don’t take orders from a nigger unless he can kick my ass.”
So I did, right then, right there. Today, there are Black editors at newspapers all over the country and no one blinks an eye. That’s progress.
There has been a lot of progress since John James Audubon–– in human rights and animal rights. Audubon played a role in giving faces and personality to those noisy things flittering way up in the sky and screeching from the trees. He’s earned credit for that.
And as to those who are troubled by the non-birding side of him, they have the right to disassociate from John James Audubon. That, too, is progress.
Jamaka Petzak says
THANK YOU, Mr. Witherspoon, for sharing your family’s amazing history. If America ever did decide to live up to its ideals, it would be taught in all our schools as inspirational and as one of (undoubtedly) many examples of what can be done with determination and refusal to let anyone hold one down or back.
Sharing, with gratitude!