The University announced this week that they have removed the name of Sir John Cass from the School of Art, Architecture and Design.
Sir John Cass’s Foundation is one of London’s largest and oldest education charities. The modern foundation has supported primary schools, secondary schools and universities, including our very own London Metropolitan University. Through ‘Founder’s Day’, memorials and statues we have always honoured and celebrated the name ‘Sir John Cass’ as he is remembered as a philanthropist who was extremely generous in his will by leaving money and property to help educate the poorer children of London. However, as a community we had failed to recognise that these charities and ‘generous’ gestures were founded from the Transatlantic slave trade.
For three years Sir John Cass was a slave trading member of the Royal African Company. The RAC was an English trading company in which more enslaved Africans were forcibly shipped to America than any other company in the history of the Transatlantic slave trade. As a director and investor of the company, Sir John Cass was granted the right to trade in enslaved people therefore he was fully aware of the brutal activities taking place and he intended to profit from this exploitation. Cass’s mercantile activities have warranted him to leave behind a philanthropic legacy to which a foundation was established upon his death.
For sure it is an ‘uncomfortable truth’ that the City of London owes a large part of its wealth to its role in the slave trade. However, we are never probed or encouraged to think about slavery and its historic connections in British culture, and how the privileged benefitted greatly from the suffering of enslaved Africans. Instead the impact of slavery is confined to the history book. The undeniable white washing of history has enabled us to become ignorant as a nation to the true history of the world we live in today.
The broader Black Lives Matter movement has shed light and rightly so brought this to the public's attention. With the recent toppling of the controversial Edward Colston statue in the Bristol harbour, statues and other monuments have been pulled into question and finally probed us to think about these statues and figures that we have in the past glorified them for their philanthropy. Finally, now we are challenging, researching and acknowledging these colonial and slave trading figures and how they quite frankly made their wealth and benefited from the trading and exploitation of enslaved Africans.
The ‘Sir John CASS School of Art, Architecture and Design’ was established in 2012 forming a part of London Metropolitan University. Learning through practice and playing with process, the School of Art, Architecture and Design once known as the ‘CASS’ has always been highly regarded as an Art school, but yet none of us took it upon ourselves to look into the history of who we took our name from. Over the years the school has adopted a unique identity in the heart of London. Through the consistent sharing and development of work that captures and reflects the energy of our students, the school has successfully established a strong presence as an Art School. However, as an institution we had failed to recognise and acknowledge Britain's statuary heritage. We must utilise this time now more than ever as a time for reflection and a time for change.
Despite the recent name change of the school, it is important that we don’t forget or ignore the explicit ties we held and still hold with the name Sir John Cass, a man who was and still is regarded as a major figure in the early development of the Transatlantic slave trade. Since the recent acknowledgement of Sir John Cass’s and the foundation's history, it was vital as an institution that we took a stance in that the name ‘CASS’ no longer reflects our missions and values on equality and diversity, and no longer represents our vibrant and culturally diverse community.
Moving forward, as an institution in a western society that is part of a movement, it is imperative that we reflect on our past. However, our movement should not and does not stop at reflection. Our place in society and our place in London means that we should and will continue to engage, listen and be attentive of the world around us. Right now, as an institution alongside other communities we have updated history in that we have removed a figure from a point of glorification.
While it is important that we do not forget history, it is vital that we continue to challenge each other, decisions and the curriculum to ensure that we are not glorifying Britain's colonial and racist past. As a society we are not seeking to re-write history, instead we are seeking to refine it in that we become conscious and aware of the truth of the past and that we are more mindful of who we have up on a pedestal and who and what we glorify both institutionally and personally.
As we continue to celebrate the achievements and diversity of all our community it was crucial that we relieved the name ‘CASS’ from our institution and instead celebrate the works of those who have contributed to society whilst fighting positively for equality, peace, justice and social unity.
Jessica Hoarau - Full Time Officer for the School of Art, Architecture and Design, and the School of Computing and Digital Media