On 7 June, Black Lives Matter protesters in Bristol tore down a statue of Edward Colston – a slave trader. This was a hugely symbolic and important action. After this, in the UK and around the world, other statues came down. Although this doesn’t end systemic racism, it does shine a light on our abhorrent colonial history. It also marks an important shift in refusing to memorialise those who profited from slavery.
In Bristol, a group of activists have started a petition to take this move one step further and rename streets that are “still littered with slave traders’ names”.
“A conversation about empire, racism, and slavery”
Finlay Stevenson, who started the petition with Harry Hudson, told The Canary that “since the dramatic fall” of Colston’s statue, he’s become aware of “informal attempts to rename” some Bristol streets. The petition came from the awareness that a growing number of people “want these efforts to become legal and permanent”. The aim is to change names of “Colston Avenue to Stephenson Ave (after local bus boycott hero Paul Stephenson) and Colston Street to Floyd Street” in honour of George Floyd. The petition notes that Colston’s name has now:
been removed from the iconic music venue Colston Hall and the office block Colston Tower. Outside the Colston Arms stands a sign saying ‘We are listening. Black Lives Matter.’ Colston’s and Colston’s Girls Schools have embarked on discussions about renaming.
The proposal to rename streets comes as part of an important “conversation about empire, racism, and slavery”. Stevenson told The Canary that while renaming streets may seem like a “small” gesture:
As I am typing the local fascists are gathering on what is currently Colston Avenue and they need to be beaten.
Those behind the petition feel the campaign has reached “a new level of urgency”. According to Hudson “fascist thugs” are now “demanding” Colston’s statue is returned “on the very avenue we want to rename”. Stevenson also emphasised that this petition:
is not just about names but ultimately who owns Bristol’s streets: fascists or residents who can and will fight for racial justice.
“The real whitewash would be to do nothing”
In 1963, the Bristol Omnibus Company refused to employ Black or Asian workers. Youth worker Paul Stephenson and the West Indian Development Council led a four-month boycott of Bristol buses “until the company backed down and overturned the colour bar”. Black History 365 explains that this boycott “drew national attention to racial discrimination in Britain”. Moreover:
The Bristol Bus Boycott was considered by some to have been influential in the passing of the Race Relations Act 1965 which made “racial discrimination unlawful in public places” and the Race Relations Act 1968, which extended the provisions to employment and housing.
“People who didn’t live through the Bristol Bus Strikes”, Stevenson said, may not know about Paul Stephenson’s important contribution “to race relations legislation today”. He also stressed that:
A change of name would instigate a wider discussion of his role, both in media and in schools, where there is a shameful lack of education surrounding racism, imperialism, and the power of people to resist them.
Similarly, recognising in this way the death of George Floyd in revitalising an international response against anti-Black racism feels urgent.
Significantly, as he also explained:
The real whitewash would be to do nothing.
“A profound rejection of racial bigotry”
“As we see huge demonstrations by fascists across the country, including in Bristol”, Stevenson told The Canary, “it’s increasingly imperative that this moment leads to a discussion of the city’s history in the context of civil rights and oppression today”. “Renaming the very street, recently afflicted by fascism, after a local civil rights leader” he stressed, “would be a profound rejection of racial bigotry”. He continued:
This change acknowledges that history, and street names, are more than just Edward Colston and the slave trade: there are diverse histories within one city, and these should be reflected in its monuments.
The petition, addressed to Bristol mayor Marvin Rees, needs more support. Black Lives Matter protests can’t and won’t stop until we see major change. Signing a petition may not fix the deeper issues, but solidarity has never been more important.
Featured image via Tom Woodnut with permission
- Add your name to the petition here and please share on social media.
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