UoB must be a national leader of anti-racism and rename their buildings named after slave traders

To lead the revolution or to follow in its wake

7thJune 2020. The day I saw Colston fall. This historic day was a step towards modern day Bristol reconciling with its slave trading past. Much like the city, the University of Bristol must reckon with its continued memorialisation of slave traders. Now more than ever we must reflect upon the indelible imprint of slavery on Bristol’s public culture. As a higher education institution who directly benefited from slave money, UoB should be leading this national conversation.

The names of Colston Hall, Wills Hall, Wills Memorial Building, the Fry Building and the Merchant Venturers Building are flimsy educational tools. You could live, study and graduate in these buildings and be completely oblivious to slavery’s role in building Bristol. A building’s name does not engage in any historical reflection. A building’s name is not a critical appraisal. A building’s name doesn’t remove the blood from the bricks.

To those who shout that renaming a building is airbrushing history, I say: to preserve these buildings’ names is to accept the airbrushed versions of history that Colston and Wills constructed. A story of philanthropy and generous investment in the city of Bristol. By commemorating their names, we legitimise this part of the narrative. The memorialisation of slave traders stands as a testament to a past society which recognised their contribution and condoned the murderous means. I don’t know a student at Bristol who tolerates their narrative and anyone who does should be educated to the contrary. UoB must own its history and not be beholden to it.

The University of Bristol estimates that around 85 per cent of the wealth used to found it depended on the labour of enslaved peoples. This is the history that the university must confront. The UK’s legacy of slavery and colonialism hides in plain sight: the sickening nostalgia around empire; the white-washed national history curriculum; oh, and who could forget our beloved Boris’ racism and support for empire.

I want my university to seriously think about what kind of community it wants to foster. Predicated on inclusion? An active remembrance of its bloody past? The University of Bristol has a duty to address this and must begin by scrutinising its own dark history. UoB itself is an engine of white privilege with over 35 per cent of its student population having attended private schools. University buildings dominate the centre of the Bristol’s richest neighbourhoods. Its cultural spaces are still overwhelmingly white. Black cultural spaces occupy the city’s peripheries. We must decolonise the cultural spaces that linger in Bristol. To neglect this duty is to bask in the privilege that money off the backs of enslaved people has accorded the university. This is a battle of ideas and UoB must not obfuscate their anti-racist stance.

The UoB buildings are relics of a past time and a past culture, where white supremacy went unchallenged. They bestow honour and positive remembrance to men who deserve none. Their foul legacy still haunts Bristol. Does it not enrage you that your university still stands idly by? Our university should be a cultural trailblazer, not a social reactionary. Renaming buildings would not be a historical erasure, but an opportunity to write a post-colonial public history which acknowledges the heinous crimes of these slave traders. Memorialisation through name alone is not an educational tool. It is a legacy of cultural colonisation; visible yet unchallenged, breathing the past into the present, yet suffocatingly silent. We must strive to subvert the hegemonic status quo which embalms these slave traders’ memories in the very fabric of our city. Our black community is owed at least this much.

UoB has issued a statement committing to “review” and “debate” the renaming of these buildings. All I can say is they better reach a consensus sharpish. UoB must show urgency in this matter. This is not a “debate” over the nuanced appraisal of a Winston Churchill. This is the exposure of the acts of people that no one can defend. This is long overdue. Will we lead this revolution or follow in its wake?

In the days since Colston fell, Robert Milligan’s statue in London and King Leopold II’s statue in Brussels have been taken down. More confrontations with our past will follow. Cultural spaces are being reclaimed, casting off their oppressive legacies and laying foundations for a more empowering and egalitarian future. George Floyd’s death catalysed an unprecedented mood of international solidarity. For this mood to become the anti-racist zeitgeist that our city has demanded, our cultural institutions must lead the way. Now is the time for the democratic renaming of our university’s buildings.

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