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Anti-racism activist argues against removing “degrading” frieze in Leeds City Centre

BY Phoebe Morton

Joe Williams outside Leeds Trinity’s Centre for Journalism (Credit Georgia Levy-Collins)

Founder of Leeds black history walks Joe Williams has argued against removing a frieze dehumanising black people in Leeds City Centre, calling it a “knee-jerk reaction” during a talk at Leeds Trinity University.

The frieze, on 18 Park Row, was constructed in 1905 despite slavery being abolished in 1838 in the United Kingdom.

It depicts a black man in a submissive position wearing nothing but a loin cloth.

Instead, anti-racist activist and actor Joe Williams called for a positive response to the eradication and misrepresentation of black people throughout history.

When asked for his response to arguments that the frieze should be removed in a similar fashion to Edward Colston’s statue in Bristol, Williams said: “The danger with pulling things down is that people won’t believe you that these things actually existed.

“You need those things in place to say ‘yeah, that’s how it was’ but, you know, we need to be different.”

Joe Williams giving his talk at Leeds Trinity University for Black History Month

However Williams said that having had conversations with the owners of the building “they don’t mind if something is added to contextualise it”.

It is possible a response to the frieze could be similar to the English Heritage’s decision to include the acknowledgement of racism and xenophobia in Enid Blyton’s work.

 English Heritage established the blue plaque scheme, which links famous people to certain places by a commemorative plaque.

Whilst the plaque remains unchanged, the English Heritage website now contains a section on modern criticism of Blyton for the sexism and racism in her work.

Williams’ talk highlighted that thousands of years of eradication of the contributions of black people has led to systemic racism in society.

 “Racism is not a personal thing, it’s systemic” said Williams.

“Racism is not a personal thing, it’s systemic”


A key part of Williams’ talk was revealing the eradication of the contributions of black people including changing traditional African names to ones adopted by Ancient Greece.

An example Williams provided was that Egypt’s original name was Kemet, meaning ‘black land’, a reference to the fertile Nile flood plain.

Further, the word ‘Pyramid’ comes from the ancient Greek word meaning ‘wheat cake’.

Williams argued that these changes showed the dismissal of black intelligence throughout history.

In reference to these examples, Williams said: “A lot can happen if you change the name of something and take away the original meaning.”

He argued for more education on black history at all levels of schooling in an attempt to “stop that generation-after-generation of dumbing down”.

Despite confirmed cuts to arts education, Williams still believes the arts is the best way of educating people on black history.

“If you are not represented in the arts, properly, then neither is your humanity. If your humanity is not represented in the arts, it is not represented in society.”

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