Bristol has a contradictory identity. It is both one of the most important sites of the slave trade in the 17th century and a hub for major advocates of racial equality. The city’s history as the homeland of Edward Colston, a character himself torn between a generous philanthropist and an inhuman slave trader, has long tainted its reputation. This set of contradictions was illustrated in Jamie Doward’s The Guardian article, which said “‘Before 1760 they were at eye level'”. that at all.
Part of the inability of perceptions to evolve is the inextricable way in which Bristol is linked to the slave trade; from the harbor to the houses of Clifton, it is inevitable that many houses and other properties were bought or built by slavery. Plantation owner Phillip John Miles owned King Weston House in Lawrence Weston while slave trader Richard Bright acquired property near Pill. The relationship is not limited to the accommodation itself, but naturally also to those who inhabited it: Bristol had the second highest concentration of plantation owners outside of London in 1833. Perhaps the most shocking to contemporary residents , removed from the immediate horrors of the slave trade, was the revelation that until 2015 Bristol taxpayers were still repaying debt owed to repaid slave owners. No matter where you turn in the city, you cannot lose the legacy of slavery.
There are moments in history, however, that are easy to forget. The Park Street riots of 1944 are one example, which does not necessarily mesh with Bristol’s direct links to the slave trade. Some might say it’s excusably forgettable. After all, there was some kind of war against. This argument is unjustifiable in the age of relentless information and unprecedented access to history. The fact that the Park Street riots are still a little-known event in Bristol itself is a shocking example of the dangerous oversights of accepted history. General studies of Bristol have rightly focused on its participation in the 18th century slave trade, but Bristol’s history is even more murky with the inclusion of the mid-20th century.
Still segregated during the war, black American GIs were stationed in Bristol and the surrounding area, remaining in Henleaze, Bishopston and Shirehampton. They were not sent to fight or train, but to work, another crime often overlooked in favor of the glory of war. Just days after the D-Day landings of June 6, the number of African-American troops stood at around 300,000.
There was still an established racism in the town, illustrated by a six point plan by a Somerset resident to deal with the admission of African Americans, including instructions to “cross the street if you saw any.” an approach ; move away if people sit next to you at the movies; stores should serve them as quickly as possible and make it clear that they are not to return. And “under no circumstances should colored troops be invited into the houses of white women”.
“Segregation, however, preoccupied British politicians throughout the post-war period… their responses inadvertently supported rather than ameliorated racial inequalities in the structure of residential space. – SJ Smith
The segregation that had weighed and divided the United States since its inception was now imposed on a city in England. Convenience stores, unaccustomed to changing services for different customers, have been strongly encouraged to comply with the American intervention. The products were the horrid “White Wednesdays” and “Black Thursdays” which now filled the average week in the city.
The events of 1944 bear witness to the continuing and complicated narrative of the history of racism in Bristol. It is a testament to the messy role the city has played and its indefinite relationship with what has become Bristol’s most infamous institution. First sponsor, partner, then perpetrator of racism in the slave trade, the Park Street Riots add a new layer to Bristol’s history with racism: as a victim.