Is renaming Wills Memorial Building a ‘superficial solution’ to racial inequality?

Renaming Wills Memorial Building is a ‘superficial solution’ to solving wider problems of racism in the city says community activist, Jendayi Serwah.

It is no secret that Bristol’s link to the Transatlantic Slave Trade is a sordid one.

When students from the University of Bristol started a campaign to change the name of ‘a true Bristol icon’ Wills Memorial Building it was met with support and outrage.

The building named after Henry Overton Wills III was the university’s first chancellor who historians believe used profits from the slave trade to fund the university’s royal charter.

Fast forward to recent times and many still believe that the city is not doing enough in commemorating those who suffered the most.

For Jendayi Serwah, praising Wills Memorial highlights how racism is still rampant in the city.

Dead history or live legacy?

The looming presence of the Wills Memorial Building is inescapable.

Sitting at the top of Park Street the buildings gothic architecture is intricate – and so is the building’s history.

Henry Overton Wills III effectively established the university when in 1908 he offered £100,000 to fund it. The Wills Memorial Building was dedicated to Henry by his two sons.

inside wills mem
The Wills Memorial Building officially opened in 1925. Image credit: Didi Onwu

It is believed that the Bristolian continued to import slave-grown tobacco from American plantations up until the American Civil War in 1865 – more than three decades after slavery was abolished under the 1833 Abolition Act.

“The city benefited from the Wills family. We can’t begin to airbrush history just because people don’t personally agree with it.”

Today, the company is called Imperial Tobacco and is known for Strand, Navy Cut and Woodbines cigarettes. It is the fourth largest cigarette company in the world.

Some are divided on whether or not he should fall or be hailed.

For Conservative Cllr. Richard Eddy, the former leader of Bristol City Council’s Conservative group, the answer is simple.

‘Bristol’s homogeneous toleration of slave profiteers’

Bristol’s record on racial equality is the worst of any major British city.

report jointly written by Manchester’s Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity and the Runnymede Trust, concluded that the 16% of Bristol’s population who are BAME – Black, Asian and Minority ethnic – are subject to what it calls an “ethical penalty”.

Black African and Caribbean adults are more likely to be unemployed in Bristol compared to the national (England and Wales) average, and the extent of inequality widened in the decade between 2001 and 2011.

Enjoy a beautiful day at Queen Square, cross over Pero’s Bridge, attend a concert at Colston Hall all these places have links to powerful and rich merchants who benefited from the slave trade.

The horrific reality of slavery is a stain on some of Bristol’s historical landmarks. So should we still be praising these merchants?


Asher Websdale, who launched the petition with friends Elmi Hassan and Shakeel Taylor-Camara feels that name represents much more for black students.

He said: “We are constantly reminded of the honours and commemoration that white individuals have obtained through slavery. The sheer fact we graduate in this building undermines progression.”

The campaign to rename Wills Memorial comes after calls to rename Colston Hall because of Edward Colston’s link to slavery divided the city.

The petition reached over 600 signatures and a counter campaign asking for the building to be left alone  reached over 800 signatures.

John Goacher, another University student started a counter petition three days after.

“Wills was a kind-hearted employer and citizen. The campaign to change the name is not a true reflection on the type man he was,” he says.

screenshot petition


Is change on the horizon?

There are many places in the city that showcases Bristol’s history. However are there many places that honour those who were on the receiving end of the slave trade?

The answer is no.

A few plaques, a footbridge and a semi permanent display at the Mshed help tell the story of those who helped build a ‘diverse’ Bristol.

A quote in the Mshed display of the slave trade. Image credit: Didi onwu
A quote in the Mshed display of the slave trade. Image credit: Didi onwu

Number 7 Great George Street, now a museum, was the home of John Pinney, a plantation owner in the Caribbean, who he brought back a slave, Pero Jones, after whom the dockside bridge is named.

So should the city be doing more?

Jendayi Serwah was also part of the Countering Colston. A group aimed at lobbying the name change of Colston Hall.

She said: “British people have a way of celebrating their heroes. Colston was no hero. The fact that he is celebrated keeps me on my toes.”

The history of Bristol is not just about the enslavement of Africans. It was also not the only city in Britain to have slaving ports.

It it was the trade in Africans, and even more importantly, the trade in the goods from slave plantations, which helped to make Bristol such a beautiful and prosperous port.

The future of renaming Wills Memorial Building hangs in the balance. What is for sure is that change is on the horizon.

Colston Hall will be renamed in 2020 after much debate.

The places on this trail are real places of  those who walked these same streets before you – in the days of slavery. They tell the unique story of Bristol’s past.

Source of images: creative commons

Related links:

Countering Colston

Slave Trade

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