A recent petition has been started by students living in Bristol, England, requesting to change the name of the Wills Memorial Building because of its links to the slave trade. It follows news that Colston Hall will reopen in 2020 with a new name.
The building was opened in 1925 in honour of Henry Overton Wills, a tobacco importer who ran a cigarette manufacturing business in Bristol – which would later became incorporated into Imperial Tobacco.
The Wills family benefited from tobacco imports from slave plantations and amassed a fortune.
The students who started the petition state:
“As students of Bristol, we ask the university to uphold its commitment to diversity and inclusivity and revise the name of the building that is, somewhat, a centerpiece in the uni. 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 profiteers and name the building after somebody the entire university population can be proud of”.
Though the students who started the petition believe that changing the name of the building is the right thing to do, they have come up against criticism.
Writing in the University of Bristol student paper, Epigram, one commentator said it was “ridiculous” for students to be distracted by a name, and that “the past is unchangeable and the best way to challenge it is to create a more open and tolerant present”.
Though it has been strongly suggested that the Wills Memorial Building should be renamed, the final decision was that the name will remain. “We take this opportunity to positively affirm our commitment to opposing injustices arising from the history and legacies of slavery.” the final decision states “We cannot alter the past but we can enable reflection upon it and add to knowledge about slavery past and present.”
The article was also published by Bristol 24/7.