Campaign to rename Edinburgh's James Gillespie's High School due to slave trade links

Hundreds of people have signed the online petition

Wednesday, 16th September 2020, 4:45 pm
Updated Wednesday, 16th September 2020, 7:28 pm
JON SAVAGE PHOTOGRAPHY 07762 580971 www.jonsavagephotography.com 27th OCT 2015 JAMES GILLESPIE'S HIGH SCHOOL IN EDINBURGH

A petition to rename James Gillespie’s High School due to the founder's links with the slave trade has gained over 600 signatures.

James Gillespie was a wealthy tobacco merchant in 18th-century Edinburgh who used a quarter of his wealth to build a school for underprivileged children in Marchmont.

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Hundreds of years after the school first opened its doors in 1803 calls have been made to rename the school due to concern surrounding Gillespie’s racist views and beliefs.

The tobacco merchant made his fortune from Virginia tobacco, a product of the slave trade and the petition states that this makes Gillespie a “direct contributor and benefactor of the slave trade”.

It wrote: “For those who don’t know, James Gillespie became one of the richest men in Edinburgh by selling Virginia tobacco and snuff, products of slave labour.

“This makes him a direct contributor and benefactor of the slave trade. It is possible that Gillespie may have owned slaves himself.”

The petition goes on to say that the school should not be proud of being named after a man with links to the slave trade.

It states: “This is not an attempt to cover up our history, rather a way of saying that we don’t believe that this man is someone who should be celebrated anymore.

“Education on our school’s history should be part of our curriculum, but a man who made his wealth at the expense of others’ lives is not something we should be proud of.”

The petition asks that the name of the school be changed to something that truly reflects the “values of the diversity that exists within the school”.

It recommends that the school be renamed after Malala Yousafzai, the young activist awarded a Nobel prize for education campaigning and who was almost shot dead by opponents.

The petition continues: “Our main building is named after Nobel Prize winner Malala Yousafzai – an activist and truly inspiring woman, who’s defiance and bravery represent our school values far better than Gillespie?”

Many people who commented on the petition said they were ex-pupils and agreed with renaming the school.

Frances Fimister wrote: “I am an ex-pupil of this school and had no idea of the history of the man it was named after. I thoroughly agree and think another name should be chosen.”

One person recommending the school be named after famous alumni and popular novelist Muriel Spark.

However, others thought a name change did not go far enough.

After signing the petition Iain Brown commented: “Beyond renaming, as a school that champions diversity and its socially-conscious pupils, you must also take active steps to educate students about who the founder of the school was and how he made his wealth, and of Edinburgh and Scotland’s colonial legacy.

The school, listed as one of Scotland's top 20 year, said on its website: "We acknowledge the connections to the North Virginia slave-owning tobacco plantations … We are updating our curriculum to take more account of this history and of the Black Lives Matter movement."

A City of Edinburgh Council spokesperson said: “We are aware of the petition and all our schools are committed to addressing racism and inequality in all its forms. Edinburgh has historical features such as street names and architecture which relate to the city’s involvement in the slave trade. Our schools have a vital role in tackling racism through strong anti-racist leadership and teaching.

"It’s important that we all critically examine the historical evidence around us, ensuring that black history and its role in our city are a core part of a decolonised and inclusive curriculum. By doing this we will understand the wrongs of the past and dismantle their harmful and persistent legacy in present day racism and structural inequalities.”

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