'Julian Huxley at Bird City: Edward McIllhenny, Racism and Biology in Postbellum Louisiana'
Julian Huxley’s experiences of the United States in 1912-16 as a young biological researcher have not been explored in great detail. In particular, his encounter with the postbellum south at Edward McIllhenny’s ‘Bird City’ (an ornithological reserve on McIllhenny’s land at Avery Island in Louisiana) provokes a fascinating discussion around the interlinking of ecology, conservation, biology and racial segregation. In his late memoir Memories (1970), Huxley claimed it as his ‘most exciting (and scientifically profitable) ornithological experience’ to date as he studied the behaviour of the beautiful snowy egrets that McIllhenny encouraged to breed. Yet other elements of McIllhenny’s control over the estate leave an unpleasant taste; Huxley recalls McIllhenny exercising ‘a feudal authority’ over his black workforce, ‘much more arbitrary than anything I had seen in agricultural England’. For Huxley, McIllhenny’s ‘great virtue […] was his love of birds’. Yet McIllhenny’s own writings depict a man whose belief in the order and symmetry of the natural world – the ‘bird city’ that he created mirrored the great human urban conurbations of the United States – was accompanied by a disturbing belief in the natural rightness of white supremacy and the success of southern slavery. ‘Under the slave-system’, McIllhenny writes, ‘the Negro had no care’, and emancipation created 'chaos in the South'. In this paper, I use Huxley’s experiences of ‘Bird City’ and the postbellum south as a way of exploring more troubling and complex interactions between race and racism, conservation, and behavioural biology in the period.