A group of Bristol University students have launched a campaign calling for the famous Wills Memorial Building to be renamed because of its historic slave trade link.
Asher Websdale, Shakeel Taylor-Camara and Elmi Hassan say it is time to stop ‘glorifying’ an individual who advocated such an immoral practice and have launched a petition that has gained almost 400 signatures to date.
The impressive building in Queens Road was named after the university’s first chancellor Henry Overton Wills III, who invested a lot of money in the institution after making his fortune as part of the tobacco importing firm W. D. & H. O. Wills.
But campaigners argue Wills was only afforded this position after “financing the university with slave profited money” and are calling on the institution to uphold its commitment to diversity and inclusivity by revising the name of the building.
Speaking to Epigram, the university’s student newspaper, Taylor-Camara said the petition was “not an attempt to cover up Bristol’s ties to slavery, nor whitewash history.”
The group behind the petition said: “While we begrudgingly understand that Bristol has a historical connection to the slave trade, we find it hard to accept that the university still glorifies an individual who advocated such an immoral practice. We also find it ironic that the building is often the setting for events hosting some of this century’s most progressive thinkers.
“The Wills family may have invested heavily in the institution, but this does not justify the means of slavery. As an establishment that wishes its community to be effective in ‘challenging accepted norms’, let us break free from Bristol’s homogeneous toleration of slave masters and name the building after somebody the entire university population can be proud of.”
The Wills Memorial Building was lit in red for a recent ceremony to welcome The University of Bristol’s new chancellor:
In a statement to Epigram, a spokesperson for the University of Bristol said: “In 1908, a substantial gift of £100,000 from Henry Overton Wills III helped to establish our university, and a year later, partly as a consequence of that gift, we were awarded a Royal Charter.
“We have never sought to hide our association with the Wills family. We believe that it is important to be open and reflective about our history, and the city’s historical connection to the slave trade.
“To us, it would seem disingenuous to seek to deny or cover up our relationship with the family. We would welcome the chance to discuss this further with the organisers of this petition.”
The petition follows a recent campaign to remove Colston’s name from Bristol’s publicly-owned music hall because of its namesake’s link to the slave trade, but those opposed to changing the name said the calls are ‘misguided’ and argue we should not shy away from the city’s darker past.