Residents Of Bristol, England, Grapple With Slave-Trading Past Of The City's Most Celebrated Figure : Parallels He's known as "one of the most virtuous and wise sons" of Bristol, but the philanthropist Edward Colston made his fortune as a 17th century slave trader. Many want his name erased from city landmarks.
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An English City Grapples With The Slave-Trading Past Of Its Most Celebrated Figure

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An English City Grapples With The Slave-Trading Past Of Its Most Celebrated Figure

An English City Grapples With The Slave-Trading Past Of Its Most Celebrated Figure

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  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/592878135/598503642" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Confederate statues are being taken down in some parts of the American South. The city of Bristol in southwest England was largely built by 18th-century slave traders. Many streets and buildings are still named after them. But as NPR's Lauren Frayer reports, the city is making some changes.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

LAUREN FRAYER, BYLINE: Rehearsals are underway at Colston Hall, Bristol's premier music venue. It's a landmark. The Beatles played here. But after 150 years, it's decided to search for a new name.

SARAH ROBERTSON: There are sections of Bristol society who feel shame and embarrassment stepping into our building because of the name.

FRAYER: That name, Colston, says spokeswoman Sarah Robertson, comes from a slave merchant, Edward Colston, on whose wealth much of this city is built. In the 1700s, Bristol's port sent thousands of ships to trade African slaves for tobacco, sugar and rum in the New World. Colston's name is on schools, streets and an office tower in Bristol, not as a slave trader but as this city's greatest philanthropist. It's a complex legacy. Some say his slaving past cancels out much of the good he did.

KATIE FINNEGAN-CLARKE: We're kind of a mixture of academics and historians and artists.

FRAYER: Katie Finnegan-Clarke went to Colston's Girl's School. Now, she helps run Countering Colston, which lobbied the concert hall to change its name.

FINNEGAN-CLARKE: I remember finding out how he made his money. And that kind of turned my whole world upside down really.

FRAYER: The latest controversy is over a large statue of Colston on Colston Avenue in the city center. Some say it's part of the city's history. Others want it removed.

MICHELE CURTIS: At the moment, we're in St. Paul's in Bristol.

All the streets are named after, you know, slave merchants. But you don't really see that for black people that have contributed.

FRAYER: Artist Michele Curtis has been taking matters into her own hands, painting murals on city walls that honor the black citizens of Bristol. And she'd like to see the city rename some of its landmarks.

CURTIS: Of course, you know, it's just the name of a building. It's not really that important. But, you know, it would be a nice gesture. It would be a step in the right direction.

SUE GILES: On this wall, we've got a big map published in 1769.

FRAYER: At a local museum, curator Sue Giles shows me just how many Bristol landmarks were built with the profits of slavery. But she doesn't quite agree with the Countering Colston activists who want his name erased from the city.

GILES: If you keep changing everything, people forget. You don't know who Colston was, so there's no discussion of his role in the slave trade, about Bristol's role in the slave trade.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: We turn up our noses at each other, but life goes on and doesn't care.

FRAYER: There's another big art center in Bristol, The Old Vic Theater, founded 250 years ago by slave merchants. It's run today by Emma Stenning, who says she's trying to come to terms with the theater's difficult past by adding works by black playwrights. She sees a link between what's happening in Bristol and a similar movement in the United States.

EMMA STENNING: You see many cities and many communities asking themselves, what are the things that we choose to commemorate? What's missing from the history that we're telling? And that is definitely in the air.

FRAYER: As for Edward Colston, the city is installing a plaque to explain his links to the slave trade. But the statue will remain towering over Bristol's city center. Lauren Frayer, NPR News, Bristol, England.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE REDNECK MANIFESTO'S "I AM BRAZIL")

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