Black Lives Matter: Blue plaques across London under review

Statues and street names also to be examined in capital-wide diversity probe

Black Lives Matter billboard unveiled in London

A London-wide review of diversity in public spaces will include the nearly 1,000 commemorative blue plaques and statues overseen by English Heritage, the charity has said.

Alongside its ongoing effort to improve recognition of influential black and ethnic minority figures, English Heritage said it wanted to “ensure that the stories and the sometimes painful and controversial actions of those commemorated by the London statues in our care are told in full”.

Plaques that have “problematic connections” will have more detailed, warts-and-all descriptions created digitally on the associated smartphone app, a spokesperson confirmed to The Independent. Similar work will be undertaken for statues, but the charity did not say which if any it had identified as requiring updates.

“We need to ensure that the actions and the legacies of those commemorated are told in full,” English Heritage’s curatorial director Anna Eavis said in a statement.

She added: “Statues can offend but we cannot support deliberate damage to historic monuments. We believe that the best course of action is to provide as much information as possible about these monuments – their history and the context in which they were erected – and encourage debate and reflection on the sometimes painful issues they raise.”

Last week, London mayor Sadiq Khan announced a commission designed to ensure the capital’s landmarks reflected its achievements and diversity. It will focus on increasing representation of ethnic minority communities, women, LGBTQ+ people and those with disabilities.

“Our capital’s diversity is our greatest strength, yet our statues, road names and public spaces reflect a bygone era,” said Mr Khan. “It is an uncomfortable truth that our nation and city owes a large part of its wealth to its role in the slave trade and while this is reflected in our public realm, the contribution of many of our communities to life in our capital has been wilfully ignored.”

It comes amid global Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the killing of George Floyd by police in the US. Demonstrators have called for statues commemorating colonialists and people who held racist views to be removed, while in Bristol they took matters into their own hands by tearing down a memorial to slave trader Edward Colston.

English Heritage said it had been working since 2015 to improve recognition of people traditionally “under-represented in history”, including those from black and minority ethnic backgrounds. In 2019 it installed a blue plaque to commemorate Bob Marley at a house he lived in in Chelsea in 1977, and plans soon to mark the Ghanaian-born 18th-century abolitionist Ottobah Cugoano and Noor Inayat Khan, a Special Operations Executive agent in the Second World War, who was from an Indian Muslim family.

Boris Johnson has announced his own plans to establish a cross-government commission to examine “all aspects” of racial inequality in the UK.

“No one who cares about this country can ignore the many thousands of people who have joined the Black Lives Matter movement to protest peacefully, as most of them have, in the last few days,” Mr Johnson wrote in The Daily Telegraph. “It is no use just saying that we have made huge progress in tackling racism. There is much more that we need to do, and we will.”

Cities around the world are taking steps to remove statues that represent cultural or racial oppression. Authorities in the city of Hamilton, New Zealand, removed a bronze statue of Captain John Fane Charles Hamilton – the city’s namesake – who is accused of killing indigenous Maori people in the 1860s.

A statue of 18th century slave trader Robert Milligan was pulled down by workers in east London last week following pressure from campaigners.

Meanwhile, demonstrators in Belgium have called on officials to remove a statue of King Leopold II who is accused of causing the deaths of millions of Congolese people. Leopold is increasingly seen as a stain on the nation where he reigned from 1865 to 1909. Protesters want him removed from public view.

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