Cecil Rhodes theatre changes name after campaign sparked by Black Lives Matter protests

Colin Drury
·2-min read
Rhodes Art Complex in Bishop's Stortford: Google
Rhodes Art Complex in Bishop's Stortford: Google

A Hertfordshire theatre and gig venue named after the colonialist Cecil Rhodes has officially dropped its 57-year-old moniker amid growing pressure from campaigners who labelled it racist.

Rhodes Arts Complex, in Bishop’s Stortford, will now be known as South Mill Arts.

The change follows heated debate in the town — and online — about whether it was appropriate for the centre to effectively honour a Victorian imperialist who, critics say, was actively involved in the exploitation of black South Africans.

That itself was sparked by the wider Black Lives Matter protests that exploded across the western world following the death of George Floyd at the hands of white police officers in the US city of Minneapolis in May.

Now, after a petition was signed by more than 1,000 people, the theatre — which has hosted performances by David Bowie, The Who and Elton John — will be given the identity makeover.

The trust that runs the complex will also change its name from Rhodes Birthplace Trust to Bishop’s Stortford Museum and Arts Charitable Incorporated Organisation, reports the Bishop’s Stortford Independent website.

In a statement on Wednesday, the group said the transformation would allow it to “better fulfil its anticipated future role in the cultural life of Bishop’s Stortford and district”.

It added: “Whilst the trust originally indicated that it would consult the local community about a new name, the lively debate in the press, on social media and in unsolicited emails to the complex has more than adequately expressed the community’s views and the trustees now feel that such a consultation is not necessary…

“The choice of South Mill Arts reflects clear and appropriate historical links spanning almost a millennium, recognises the town’s heritage in the milling and malting industries.”

The centre was named after Rhodes when it first opened in 1963 because he was born on the site and, until recent years, was considered one of the town’s greatest sons.

The change comes less than two months after it was announced by Oxford University bosses that they were looking into removing a controversial statue of Rhodes from outside Oriel College.

But Shannon Jezzard, a councillor in neighbouring Harlow who campaigned for the renaming, said it should have happened sooner.

“There are so many positive things about Bishop’s Stortford and, in this age, we shouldn’t be honouring someone — no matter where he was born — who had done so many awful things and who was a white supremacist,” she told The Independent.

She added: “This is an arts venue. It is supposed to be inclusive.”

It is unclear however if the new name will satisfy all campaigners: some had demanded the complex should be retitled after a person of colour.

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