Students campaign for Bristol law school to be renamed over its links with slave trade

They claim Henry Wills, who the building is named after, is a ‘slave profiteer’

Wills Memorial Building

Students at the University of Bristol have launched a petition calling for its law school’s name to be changed.

Bristol’s Wills Memorial Building houses its law school and is the location for all students’ graduation ceremonies. However, petitioning students Asher Websdale, Elmi Hassan and Shakeel Taylor-Camara say little is known about the history behind the building.

In fact, the building takes its name from tobacco industry giant Henry Wills (pictured below), whose fortunes are said to derive from slave-grown American tobacco. Wills, who others say cannot be conclusively linked to the slave trade, financed the construction of the building.

Henry Wills

Bristol’s involvement in the slave trade is well known, and is understood to have peaked in the mid-eighteenth century. In a Legal Cheek article from 2015 exploring this theme, a university spokesperson said: “the University of Bristol has never denied its connection with the slave trade, however remote.”

The petition, which has received hundreds of signatures, wishes to cut these ties. It states:

[L]et 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.

While the petition is yet to be delivered to Bristol bigwigs, the university has told Legal Cheek it’s sticking by its law school’s name. A spokesperson said:

We have never sought to hide our association with the Wills family. We believe that it is important to be open and reflective about our history, and the city’s historical connection to the slave trade. We have in the past held well-attended public events and discussions about Bristol’s relationship with the slave trade. To us, it would seem disingenuous to seek to deny or cover up our relationship with the family.

This isn’t the first time students have sought to erase their universities’ shameful pasts.

Harvard Law School scrapped its official emblem last year after a successful student campaign argued the crest had strong links to slavery (it featured three wheat sheaves).

Oxford law student Ntokozo Qwabe’s campaign, Rhodes Must Fall, reaped fewer rewards. The Bachelor of Civil Law (BCL) student sought to have a statue of imperialist Cecil Rhodes removed from Oriel College. When the elite university refused to do so, he responded by stating: “Oriel College has basically said fuck all the black people.”

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