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Saturday, June 25, 2022

Time to take responsibility: All Souls’ dirty legacies

Cameron Scheijde argues why we should not tolerate All Souls’ disregard for its dirty legacies.

Oxford is a city of closed doors. From each College entrance fiercely guarded to the back doors, fire exits, and imposing, spike-topped gates, Oxford from a visitor’s perspective is one of strictly monitored and controlled access. During the pandemic this became even clearer. Large medieval doors that had once stood propped open, allowing students and visitors alike a glimpse into the grassy quads beyond, were firmly and decisively closed. The already guarded atmosphere of Oxford’s elite spaces took on a whole new character of exclusion, and as restrictions have waned and a degree of normalcy returned, vestiges of this unpleasant pandemic legacy have hung around longer than they are welcome. 

Nowhere is this clearer than Oxford’s most-guarded, most-elite space: All Souls College. Before the pandemic, All Souls was one of Oxford’s most inaccessible colleges, with incredibly limited visiting hours and a library that requires a supervisor’s sign off to enter. All this despite the fact the College’s enormous grounds and staggering resources cater for only some 80 fellows. Walk around All Souls for any period and the message is clear: you are not welcome. 

One can therefore only imagine the opportunity that pandemic restrictions presented All Souls – close to visitors indefinitely and shield the College’s community from prying eyes of students or visitors alike, all under the guise of pandemic protections. This has had the effect of erasing All Souls’ bare-minimum attempts to grapple with the legacy of the untold number who suffered and died to build the College, especially its library, which until very recently was called the ‘Codrington Library’. It still contains a giant marble statue of Codrington himself, a slaver who owned plantations that at any one time used the labour of 300 enslaved people. 

In 2017, the College unveiled a plaque to stand at the entrance of the library, reading: “In memory of those who worked in slavery on the Codrington plantations in the West Indies.” Despite the obvious and glaring errors in this statement (“worked”, implying consent, and with no direct acknowledgement of the College’s involvement in this legacy), this plaque was one small step towards contextual recognition of this unpleasant history. It was, and remains, All Souls’ only physical recognition of Codrington’s past. Yet the plaque sits behind the library’s door to Radcliffe Square on Catte Street. In Michaelmas 2019, when I used the library, the door was open during the library’s opening hours. It took some nosiness to discover the plaque, but it was nevertheless somewhat visible.

Since Hilary 2020, however, the door has remained firmly shut, with the plaque nowhere to be seen. The door locked, with strictly guarded access at all times, even during term. Despite the Bodleian and all College libraries operating as normal, All Souls still requires 48-hour advance booking for their library, so the door is never opened apart from to let elusive All Souls fellows briefly in and out of their gilded space. This erasure is an unacceptable shirking of the College’s obligation to make publicly viewable the acknowledgement of dirty legacies. 

I am lucky enough to guide for Uncomfortable Oxford, where we stand outside this firmly shut door several times a week and discuss this legacy. Usually, we could show people the plaque to open discussion, at least during the library’s term-time opening hours; now we have no such option and must instead rely on a photograph. Occasionally a fellow will leave the College, with some kind enough to hold the door to allow a glimpse, but others slam the door firmly behind them. The security excuse does not wash – there are two more card-access-only doors behind the one to Radcliffe Square. This is no way to acknowledge or commemorate the suffering of those who died so that the College can enjoy their collections and library in private peace.

Oxford has an accessibility issue; this is not a controversial statement. Out-of-date relics of elitism like All Souls hold a responsibility to do more than the bare minimum. But since pandemic rules paved the way for justifiable closing down, one cannot help but feel it is convenient for the College to keep these legacies hidden behind locked doors. 

Public health measures do not deserve to be weaponised for the preservation of elite spaces nor the absolution of responsibility to provide public access to Oxford’s research and history. It is about time All Souls stood up and cared about its impact on the city. It cannot keep hiding behind excuses.

Image Credit: Cameron Scheijde

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