Iconography Campaigns: A Global Perspective

by Emma Gilpin. Box compiled by Alex Waygood.

The iconography campaigns that have taken place in recent years remind us of the fact that history is littered with people and things that it would perhaps be preferable, or at least more convenient, to forget. There have been movements across the University of Cape Town, Harvard University and the University of KwaZulu-Natal in South Africa, as well as other universities across Europe, America and Africa, to address some of the iconography across their campuses that still reflects those times (see box below). However, these campaigns have frequently been accused of attempting to erase history, and this in particular was one of the main arguments against removing the statue of Cecil Rhodes that faces onto the High Street at Oriel.

Iconography  Campaigns: a Guide
South African Universities

The Rhodes Must Fall movement quickly spread to Rhodes University, Grahamstown. On 97/05/15, Rhodes University Council decided to begin consulting on potential name change. After a long period of consultation, the Council announced on 06/12/17 that the university’s name would not be changing.

At the University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban, a prominent statue of King George V was defaced multiple times in a similar protest.

US Universities

Harvard University, Boston, dropped the Royall seal from the Law School crest on 04/03/16 after protests by student group Royall Must Fall. (See here and here.) The Royalls provided early funding for Harvard law, but are also remembered for incidents such as burning 77 slaves alive. Earlier in the academic year, on 01/12/15 Harvard also dropped the term ‘house master’ for decanal roles due to perceived connotations with slavery.

Amherst College, Massachussets dropped Lord Jeffery Amherst as its mascot on 26/01/16 after a student campaign. The college (originally named for its host town Amherst, rather than Lord Jeffrey) decided it could not be associated with a colonial-era military commander who advocated spreading smallpox to wipe out Native Americans.

Princeton University, New Jersey, was hit by protests by student group The Black Justice League over celebrations of alumnus President Woodrow Wilson – a supporter of racial segregation. The university announced on 04/04/16 that they would keep his name on buildings but would expand diversity efforts. On 25/04/16, the university announced an ‘unduly celebratory’ mural of Wilson would be taken down.

Yale University announced on 11/02/17 that Calhoun College would be renamed after alumnus Grace Murray Hopper. Prompted by student protests, the university eventually came to its decision due to John C. Calhoun’s ‘legacy as a white supremacist and a national leader who passionately promoted slavery’.

UK Universities
Jesus College, Cambridge, was hit by protests over a bronze cockerel looted from Africa in the 19th Century. The college agreed to take the statue down on 08/03/16.

Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford also took aim at All Souls’s Codrington Library, named after Christopher Codrington, who endowed it. Codrington was a Barbadian sugar plantation owner, slave owner and former fellow of All Souls.

Students at Bristol University launched a petition on 27/03/17 for the university’s Wills Memorial Tower to be renamed. Henry Overton WIlls III was Bristol’s founding chancellor, but had connections to slavery through his investments in the tobacco trade.

Outside of Academia

2017 saw renewed debate in the United States over the remembrance of the civil war. On the 11/08/17, far-right groups gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia, to protest the planned removal of a statue of Robert E. Lee (a notorious Confederate general). When a counter-protester was killed following clashes, multiple other US cities put in place plans to remove similar statues.

Spain is still renaming streets dedicated to fascist leaders from the era of General Franco. The 2007 Historical Memory Law formally condemned the fascist regime and aimed to remove all public celebrations of Franco, but in many places it is still unenforced due to fears over dredging up the past.

The demolition of Hitler’s former house was announced by Austrian authorities on 17/10/16, in a bid to prevent it becoming a focal point for neo-nazis.

The Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford campaign, which took on the college throughout 2015 and 2016 and continues to campaign for decolonisation in Oxford, was inspired by the campaign of the same name at the University of Cape Town, which succeeded in getting a statue of Cecil Rhodes removed from their own university’s grounds. This campaign differed from its Oxford-based counterpart in that students were more demonstrative throughout the campaign, throwing paint and once even faeces at the statue. The intensity of the South African campaign perhaps stemmed from the fact that the statue was more visible to students on a daily basis and it was more obviously a statue of Cecil Rhodes. It may also reflect the sad truth that in the UK it is much easier for us to distance ourselves from colonialism and the atrocities committed by men like Rhodes.

Attempts to decolonise universities and remove iconography which represents racist values or figureheads have become a global student movement, but Rhodes Must Fall Oxford brought the campaign to national attention, forcing many of us to face up to our country’s role in the colonisation of multiple countries and the abuse of so many native peoples. Across America, students have campaigned to remove symbols of slavery that have been ingrained in their institutions. At Harvard, the term ‘house master’ has been dropped for decanal roles due to its connotations of slavery, whilst protesters at the law school successfully campaigned to have remove the Royall family coat of arms from the college’s crest, as the family are renowned for their brutality towards their slaves. (See here and here.) It seems logical that a modern institution that values diversity and inclusion would not want to seemingly endorse a family like the Royalls, or a notorious imperialist like Cecil Rhodes.

Some people believe that it is possible to support some iconography campaigns and not others. The Rhodes Must Fall debate has sparked discussion about whether we should remove statues of Winston Churchill, who, despite being the Prime Minister who helped to defeat the Nazis, also contributed to the starvation of many Indian people – arguably Great Britain’s ‘problematic fave’. For similar reasons, the Black Justice League at Princeton University has campaigned for the names to be changed of buildings celebrating President Woodrow Wilson, a renowned supporter of racial segregation.

It is difficult to justify supporting some iconography campaigns whilst suggesting that others are unnecessary. Though a man like Cecil Rhodes is, to most people, almost impossible to endorse, we print figures like Winston Churchill on our banknotes because we celebrate him as an icon of British history. We can decide who our icons are: who we celebrate, and who we remember less favourably. These issues are complex and multifaceted, but the argument that removing a statue of a historical figure is an attempt to ‘erase history’ is nonsensical. History exists not so we can glorify those who may or may not have served our country well; it exists so that we can learn and not repeat the same mistakes.

Read the rest of The Poor Print‘s special report on Rhodes, Rhodes Must Fall and the Oriel statue here.

References for this feature are included in-line, and are also included in the report’s Complete Bibliography. The Complete Bibliography also links to copies on the Poor Print server of many primary sources linked to in this feature.

All links operational at time of publication. The Poor Print takes no responsibility for the accuracy of content on other sites, but every effort has been made to find reputable sources.

Box updated on 02/01/18.

The Poor Print

Established in 2013, The Poor Print is the student-run newspaper of Oriel College, Oxford. Written by members of the JCR, MCR, SCR and staff, new issues are published fortnightly during term. Our current Executive Editors are Siddiq Islam and Jerric Chong.

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