University of Bristol pledges £10 million to address racial inequalities following consultation on renaming buildings with links to slave trade
Press release issued: 28 November 2023
The University of Bristol is pledging £10 million over the next decade to develop a programme that will address racial injustice and inequalities both within the University itself and in the local communities it works with. This will also include presenting the institution’s founders’ historic links to enslavement in a proper context.
Reparative Futures will build on some of the significant initiatives that are ongoing, and that the University has already invested in over the last few years, such as the Black Bristol Scholarships Programme.
In addition, the University will create a community fund for proposals from local groups to work with University of Bristol colleagues on collaborative education and research initiatives that tackle educational, health, and economic inequalities. Partners and experts from ethnically diverse communities will be appointed to support the University’s Reparative Futures programme.
Today’s announcement follows a public consultation over the past 12 months with students, staff and local communities which was centred on whether seven buildings, whose names were linked to families and figures with connections to the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans or associated products such as tobacco, sugar and cocoa, should be renamed. These included Wills, Fry and Colston.
The complexity of the University’s history is reflected in the mixed feedback received. Respondents felt that it was crucial to acknowledge and explain the past, explaining the historical significance of these figures in terms of their relationships with the University. Based on the feedback of more than 4,000 respondents, the University has decided to take the following steps:
- Retain all current names of buildings, including Wills and Fry, and work with staff, students and the local community 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. 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.
- Remove Edward Colston’s dolphin emblem from the university logo. Colston was a 17th century investor in the slave trade whose statue was toppled into Bristol Docks during a Black Lives Matter protest in 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. We will remove the emblem from the logo. The sun symbol of the Wills family and the horse emblem of the Fry’s will remain reflecting the wider decision around retaining building names.
Vice-Chancellor and President, Professor Evelyn Welch, has written an open letter explaining the decisions in more detail and apologising to those who have experienced racism and racist behaviours at the University of Bristol.
Professor Welch said: “I would like to thank everyone who took the time to respond to our survey both online and at in-person sessions, including several powerful and impactful events that were led by local Bristol 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. 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.”
The city of Bristol and the university’s historical relationship to the Transatlantic trade in enslaved people and the legacies of slavery are the subject of ongoing debate. Many of Bristol’s institutions benefited from the slave trade, either directly in the receipt of property, bequests and philanthropic donations from individuals engaged in trafficking, or indirectly, in the case of the University, such donations originated from individuals or organisations whose wealth can be associated with goods that were produced by enslaved labour but who did not actively participate in enslavement.
In 2017, a group of students set up a petition to change the name of the Wills Memorial Building because of the family’s links to the tobacco trade. Shortly afterwards, a counter petition was set up to keep the name as it is. The University made a commitment to work with staff, students, and communities in the city of Bristol to help better understand its past and use that knowledge to shape its future.
In November 2022 an initial report was published, and the University launched a consultation exercise, seeking views on whether seven buildings whose names are linked in different ways to the transatlantic trade in enslaved Africans should be renamed. The exercise was then extended to incorporate more voices from the local black communities. All of the engagement work, qualitative and quantitative data has been evaluated by an independent contractor, who prepared the Consultation and Engagement report.