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Bristol University to remove slave trader Edward Colston’s emblem from logo

An open letter from the vice-chancellor apologises to people who have experienced racism at the university.

Claire Hayhurst
Tuesday 28 November 2023 09:30 GMT
Wills Memorial Building (Alamy/PA)
Wills Memorial Building (Alamy/PA)

The University of Bristol is to remove the dolphin emblem of slave trader Edward Colston from its logo.

Professor Evelyn Welch, vice-chancellor and president of the university, announced the decision in an open letter in which she also apologised to those who had experienced racism at the institution.

Over the next 10 years, the university will pledge £10 million to develop a programme to address racial injustice and inequalities internally and in local communities it works with.

This programme, named Reparative Futures, will also include presenting the historical links to slavery of the university’s founders.

While the families did not own or traffic in enslaved people, the products that their 18th and early 19th century predecessors dealt in... were connected to enslaved labour

University spokesman

The announcement, issued on Tuesday morning, follows a public consultation over the past 12 months which centred on whether seven buildings should be renamed.

The buildings have names linked to families and figures with connections to the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans or associated products such as tobacco, sugar and cocoa.

They included the Wills Memorial Building, named after the Wills family of tobacco producers considered the founding family of the university due to the land and property they gifted to it.

Also included is the Fry Building, named to reflect donations from the chocolate-producing family.

A university spokesman said the 4,000 students, staff and members of local communities who responded to the survey felt it was “crucial to acknowledge and explain the past” and the historical significance of such figures.

He said the university had decided to retain all current names of buildings, including Wills and Fry, and work to ensure “their full stories and historic connections to the university are made visible”.

“The Wills and Fry families helped found the university in the early 20th century through substantial financial gifts,” he added.

“While the families did not own or traffic in enslaved people, the products that their 18th and early 19th century predecessors dealt in – such as tobacco, sugar and cocoa – were connected to enslaved labour.

“The university will work with staff, students and local communities to ensure the full stories of the institution’s origins, both positive and negative, are made more visible.”

The spokesman said the dolphin emblem of Edward Colston will be removed from the university’s logo, which was designed in 2003 from the coat of arms awarded at the institution’s foundation in 1909.

Colston was a 17th century merchant and slave trader whose statue was toppled during a Black Lives Matter protest in Bristol in June 2020.

“The university received no funding from Colston, who died nearly 200 years before the university was founded, but his personal emblem – the dolphin – formed part of the institution’s crest and modern logo,” the spokesman added.

“We will remove the emblem from the logo. The sun symbol of the Wills family and the horse emblem of the Frys will remain, reflecting the wider decision around retaining building names.”

Reparative Futures will build on a number of initiatives the university has invested in over the past few years, such as the Black Scholarships Scheme.

A community fund will be created for proposals from local groups to work with Bristol University staff on education and research initiatives to tackle educational, health and economic inequalities.

Partners and experts from ethnically diverse communities will be appointed to support Reparative Futures, the university said.

Prof Welch thanked those who responded to the survey online and at in-person sessions.

We must tell our history in an honest, open and transparent way, while at the same time putting our full weight behind substantive action to address the broader issues of systemic racism and inequality here in Bristol and beyond

Professor Evelyn Welch

She described “several powerful and impactful events” led by local communities of African and Caribbean descent.

“Throughout, I heard many distressing stories from those who had experienced racism and racist behaviours while engaging with, working at, or studying at the University of Bristol,” Prof Welch said.

“What began as a consultation on our history and building renaming became a powerful platform to expose deep hurt and frustration with our slow progress and commitment to racial equity.

“I am deeply sorry for these damaging and hurtful experiences which continue to the present day, and I apologise to everyone impacted by those injustices. We aspire to be an inclusive institution and we must do better.

“I know that some of these decisions will not please everybody – but we have listened carefully.

“We must tell our history in an honest, open and transparent way, while at the same time putting our full weight behind substantive action to address the broader issues of systemic racism and inequality here in Bristol and beyond.”

In 2017, a group of students set up a petition to change the name of the Wills Memorial Building due to the family’s links to the tobacco trade. A counter-petition was then set up to keep the name.

The university launched a consultation and an initial report was published in November 2022 on whether the seven buildings should be renamed.

It said the engagement work and data had been evaluated by an independent contractor who prepared the final report.

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