Black History Month

Bristol: how does a city address history and legacy?

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This article is part of a series from Backbench’s editorial team which examines this year’s Black History Month from the angle of ‘Making History’. The opinions expressed in these pieces are those of the editors themselves, and do not necessarily reflect Backbench’s stance as a whole. If you’d like to contribute to the Making History campaign, find out more here.

In June, the city of Bristol made headlines across the world.

You’ve probably seen the images which explain why: a statue of seventeenth-century slave trader Edward Colston being toppled from its plinth and dropped into the nearby harbour. The symbolism was clear: Colston’s statue now lay at the bottom of the water where his slave ships docked four centuries ago.

The fall of Colston’s statue is one of the most memorable images of 2020. Yet it was just one part of the global response to the killing of George Floyd in May, which saw protests in support of Black Lives Matter spring up across the world.

Along with thousands-strong protests came a nationwide debate, often heated, about how Britain ought to address its colonial and slave-trading history. In a city such as Bristol, built on the profits of the slave trade, the conversation was particularly pertinent. What should the city do with relics of its past?

When history meets geography

Reminders of Bristol’s slave-trading history were, until this year, visible throughout the city. Next to the plinth where Colston’s statue once stood is an office block until recently called Colston Tower; next to that, the newly renamed music venue the Colston Hall. Not to mention Colston’s Girls School, Colston Primary School or the Colston Arms pub, all of which have now changed or intend to change their names.

I spoke to Jendayi Serwah, activist and co-vice chair of Bristol-based Stop the Maangamizi: We Charge Ecocide and Genocide, who campaign for reparatory justice for the legacy of slavery and colonisation. Her view of the toppling of Colston’s statue was clear: ‘it started conversations internationally, about symbolism, and history and reparations, and that is useful. But we must not be content with just symbolic gestures.’

Serwah continued: ‘if you’re going to start taking stuff down, you’re not going to have anything left, because the city and the country is pretty much built off the backs of the subjugation of others’.

The Stop the Maangamizi Campaign, with the the Afrikan Emancipation Day Reparations March Committee, organise an annual march in London, calling for an ‘all-party parliamentary commission of inquiry on truth and reparatory justice into the legacies of enslavement’. Maangamizi is a Swahili term ‘which speaks to the intentionality of the African holocaust of chattel, colonial and neo-colonial enslavement’. Serwah stresses that reparations are not ‘just about compensation’, but about addressing the ongoing impacts of slavery and colonialism.

‘We’re not just talking about reparations for something that happened…we’re talking about the legacies now’. She points to inequality in education, health and employment for Black communities, and their overrepresentation in the criminal justice system, as evidence of this legacy.

crowd of protesters holding signs
Photo by Life Matters on Pexels.com

A civil rights tradition…

2020 is not the first time Bristol has made headlines for civil rights activism. In 1963 a bus boycott  forced the Bristol Omnibus Company to end a colour bar on employment. The Commonwealth Coordinated Committee, founded in 1962 with the help of Roy Hackett, led the campaign. He worked with four other local men – Owen Henry, Audley Evans, Prince Brown and Paul Stephenson – to unite Bristol’s 3000-strong Caribbean community in a boycott lasting four months.

The boycott garnered support from students at Bristol University, sympathetic members of the public and local MP Tony Benn. Campaigners maintain it was key to the passing of the 1965 Race Relations Act, which banned racial discrimination in public places.

40 years ago, St Paul’s in Bristol became the site of another important moment for civil rights in the UK. A raid on the Black and White Café, a cultural hub for Bristol’s Black community at the time, led to clashes with police. Civil rights campaigner Paul Stephenson told Bristol 24/7 the unrest was ‘a wake-up call for this country’. One which forced local authorities to pay attention to racial inequality.

…and a legacy of race inequality

How far has Bristol come since the bus boycott of 1963? Has policing changed since 1980?

In 2017, race equality charity the Runnymede Trust published a damning report, naming Bristol as the most racially segregated core city in the UK. It described ‘greater disadvantage than the national average in education and employment’ for ethnic minorities.

In 2016, Marvin Rees became the UK’s first directly elected black mayor. Many lauded the development as a sign of progress, especially given the city’s history. Rees talked in an interview with the Guardian about how, as a young boy growing up in Bristol, he would have the n-word shouted at him on his walk to school.

In establishing Bristol City Council’s own Commission on Race Equality (CORE), Rees hoped to tackled major race inequalities in the city. But Serwah says inclusion and diversity are not enough: ‘If we’re just striving to be better paid, or in a higher position in society, then the society is actually still the same, it’s just you’ve got black faces in white spaces who are still subject to the yardstick of white supremacy. Which defines what is right, what is success, what is beautiful, what is power’.

Looking forward – and back

Serwah points out that the Stop the Maangamizi Campaign for reparatory justice began back in August 2014, with their first Reparations March through London. Although she says people ‘didn’t really want to pay attention until Black Lives Matter resurfaced’, an international movement for reparatory justice had ‘been growing in popularity for some time’.

But the protests did lead Stop the Maangamizi, with Green Party councillor and former Lord Mayor Cleo Lake, to put forward a motion calling on Bristol City Council to lobby the government for a commission on slavery reparations. Lake decried the subsequent failure by councillors to debate the motion as ‘unacceptable’.

In October, in collaboration with Stop the Maangamizi and other campaign groups, the Green Party became the first major political party to pledge to ‘seeking reparatory justice for the transatlantic trafficking of enslaved Afrikans’. The Party have committed to ‘a holistic process of atonement and reparations’ which will include ‘recognizing and addressing the longstanding legacies of slavery, colonialism and neo-colonialism’.

Though the movement has been building for years through the hard work of Serwah and many others, this year has seen reparatory justice reach the national political stage.

History and legacy

Bristol is an example of how history demands to be addressed, and how it will make itself felt, one way or another. But as Serwah and other campaigners warn, continued racial inequality in the city shows that history doesn’t simply disappear when it is wiped from the map.

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