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“No statue of a black man standing up”: historian Joe Williams argues for better representation of black history in Leeds city centre

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By Daniel Pye

The founder of black heritage tours in Leeds has criticised the lack of representation of black figures in the city, describing the sole image that does exist as “degrading”.  

The frieze, 18 Park Row in Leeds. Photo by Stephen Craven

Points of Light award winner Joe Williams has run a black history tour of Leeds since 2009. In a talk at Leeds Trinity University, he pointed to black figures that have played an important role in Leeds and Yorkshire, such as Frederick Douglass. 

Mr Williams specifically criticised the frieze on 18 Park Row, created in 1905, which is the only depiction of a black man in the city. The frieze is a sculpture that depicts the traders and workers that made Leeds a commercial centre. On the frieze is a black man in a loin cloth, serving his master.  

Joe Williams, picture by Charley Bergman

Mr Williams said: “The statue represents wilful intent to represent the black man as subservient, and ignores the actual black history of Leeds.” As the statue was created long after the abolishment of slavery in the UK in 1838, the frieze is in itself a contemporary depiction of history, that aligned with the standards of the time.   

Despite this, Mr Williams did not agree with the Black Lives Matter protesters pulling down Edward Colston’s sculpture in Leeds. “I do not think that frieze should be pulled down. I think the key is education, and also further representation of black history in other spaces.”  

Mr Williams pointed out that Leeds Mercury Newspaper’s publishing of Frederick Douglass’s speeches in Leeds in 1846 helped to establish an international abolitionist movement. The cotton manufacturers in Manchester went on strike in 1862 in protest against their goods coming from slavery in part due to the speeches. This played a key role in the American Civil War. While Mr. Williams was pleased with the Nelson Mandela hands statue in Millennium Square, he said: “As far as I know there is still no full-bodied representation of an African male standing up in Leeds.”  

Leeds also has a historical connection to famous black figures such as Prince Alemayehu, Ida B. Wells, Sarah Parker Remond, Thomas Rutling, who lived and died as a teacher in a school in Harrogate, and Pablo Fanque, who is entombed in Woodhouse Lane Cemetery.  

Leeds City Council has been approached for comment.  

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