Scotland’s first black professor, Sir Geoff Palmer, recently accused two University of Edinburgh academics of racism amidst Edinburgh’s slavery review.
The claims came after academic Jonathan Hearn published an article in The Spectator claiming that Edinburgh’s slavery review was “strangely superficial”.
The slavery review was established by the City of Edinburgh council in November 2020 in response to Black Lives Matter protests taking place worldwide.
It has focused particularly on the legacy of Henry Dundas, whose role in the abolition of slavery has been the topic of much debate.
He has been criticised largely for being a ‘great delayer’ in the abolition of slavery, despite previous praise he received for contributing to the absolution of slavery.
Hearn’s article provided a defence of Dundas in his role as a Whig politician against claims of his postponement of the slave trade.
Hearn was also disparaging towards the plaque recently placed under the Dundas statue erected in St Andrews Square.
The purpose of the plaque is to draw attention to and acknowledge Dundas’ role in government, which ultimately delayed the abolition of slavery.
In response to Hearn’s The Spectator article, Sir Geoff Palmer, Scotland’s first black professor and chair of two panels on the Edinburgh Slavery Review, claimed that Hearn and Sir Tom Devine, another notable academic in favour of Dundas, were part of “an academic racist gang” in a series of tweets.
Palmer is a notable figure in anti-racism campaigning, and was knighted for his work in human rights in 2014.
He has been working to improve the lives of black and minority people in Scotland and worldwide since the 1960s, and was one of the first to call for the reinterpretation of the Dundas statue during the Black Lives Matter protests in 2020.
Since the accusations, Devine has called for Sir Geoff Palmer’s dismissal from chairing slavery review groups, claiming that accusations made against him were ‘slurs’ based only on a difference of opinion.
However, multiple individuals and groups have come to the defence of Palmer, notably the first UK professor of Black Male Studies, Tommy J. Curry, who spoke against Devine and Hearn’s backlash.
An article from The Guardian reported that he said:
“Black people themselves have the power to name racism in society.”
He added that debate could not be placed down to a “difference of opinion”, but rather that “[it is] about whether history should change based on fact – we’ve acknowledged that Dundas didn’t abolish slavery and did participate in the trade.”
Curry also thanked Sir Geoff Palmer for his work on the Slavery Review as well as his wider published works, for pushing knowledge of the history of race and racism further into Scottish culture.
Professor Peter Mathession, Principal at The University of Edinburgh, is yet to rebuke the claims of racism made by Sir Geoff Palmer, stating that they reflect “debate, discussion and disagreement” that do not align with the university’s ‘Dignity and Respect Policy.’
The Principal told The Student that he had spoken to Palmer regarding the accusations, and responded with the following statement:
“My senior colleagues and I will continue to monitor events to ensure that all members of the University community can work in a supportive environment, and that we optimise the prospects of the Review being successful.”
Some have criticised Mathieson for not being harsh enough on the basis of “freedom of speech”.
Former University of Edinburgh Rector Iain Macwhiter has called for Mathieson to quit, stating that he did not defend the academics appropriately as they have been “vilified”, and dismissed claims of racism as “baseless accusations”.
The Student has also reached out to Edinburgh University Students’ Association, who have yet to comment on the matter.
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