While Statues Are Pulled Down, a Leading Anti-Slavery Activist's Grave Has Been Restored

The dismantling of the statue of slave trader Edward Colston in the U.K. amid the Black Lives Matter movement has sparked a conversation about what we should do with other historical statues, and who should we celebrate instead.

The statue of Colston was removed by protesters on Sunday in Bristol, England, and was thrown into the river before being retrieved on Thursday morning.

The statue will eventually become a museum exhibit and has sparked discussions around whether we should remove statues of slave traders or keep them up with an added plaque explaining their role in the slave trade.

But another question to be is asked is how should we remember those who fought against slavery and played a part in its abolition?

Dr. Rita Issa said on Twitter how her friend, lawyer Paul Powlesland, found the grave of James Stephen—a leading abolitionist lawyer who drafted the Slave Trade Act 1807—and restored it.

My friend who's not on twitter found James Stephen's grave - the leading abolitionist lawyer who drafted the Slave Trade Act 1807

The grave was covered in moss & the inscription hardly visible, so he went back today, scrubbed it down and painted in the lettering 💪🏽 pic.twitter.com/WBnz8921g3

— Rita Issa (@DrRitaIssa) June 10, 2020

Stephen was a lawyer and a barrister at the Middle Temple, where Powlesland works as a barrister. After reading a book about abolitionists, Powlesland tracked down Stephen's grave in Stoke Newington, London, where he found it covered in moss with the inscription hardly visible.

Powlesland told Newsweek: "I cleaned it off and you couldn't read the inscription still so I painted in the letters. It was quite exciting because as I was painting them I was able to then read what was there, so it was almost slowly revealing what was written there as I went."

Powlesland said that Stephen seemed to be "one of the most principled of the abolitionists, he kept doing what he was doing his entire life and even when the Slave Trade Act of 1807 was passed, he was still in Parliament, asking questions about black troops and how they were treated, and about slave rebellions and things like that."

James Stephen Grave
As statues of slave traders are being torn down, Paul Powlesland restored the grave of James Stephen, a leading abolitionist. Paul Powlesland

While people such as Stephen should be celebrated, Powlesland believes that people of color who were crucial to the abolition of slavery should be remembered too.

Powlesland said one of the leaders of the movement to abolish the slave trade, William Wilberforce, is "probably over celebrated a little bit in terms of the abolitionist cause. His presence has drowned out a lot of the women and the people of color who actually had a great part in the struggle.

"It's not a case of suddenly erecting loads of statues to white abolitionists and saying 'we're done now.' No, that's the start of the learning process."

Powlesland gives the example of Olaudah Equiano, an ex-slave who wrote an autobiography about being captured that was crucial to abolition. There is a statue honoring Equiano in Telegraph Hill, London, that was made by local school children, but not an official memorial where he is buried on Tottenham Court Road, as his exact grave location has been lost.

While the discussions of what to do with these statues continue, there is also the question of who do we want to celebrate instead. As Powlesland says: "Many people support the destruction of the statues, but it's also a question of like, what do we say that's like a positive thing rather than just destruction of the negative.

"It's quite exciting about having a conversation as a country, like who do we actually admire? Who did do the right thing? Who amongst you amongst us do we want to look up to?"