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A council has been accused of being ‘racist’ for trying to rename a Plymouth square honouring slave trader and naval commander Sir John Hawkins after the city’s black football legend Jack Leslie.

During the summer Plymouth City Council proposed renaming Sir John Hawkins Square after the Plymouth Argyle player who is the club’s fourth highest goal scorer.

Leslie, who played for the club in the 1920s and 1930s, was the only black professional footballer at the time and is believed to have missed out on a place in the England squad because of discrimination.

The decision to replace the name of an Elizabethan slave trader on the square beside the city’s magistrates’ court followed the Black Lives Matter protests in the wake of the death of George Floyd in police custody in the United States in May.

During the summer Plymouth City Council proposed renaming Sir John Hawkins Square after the Plymouth Argyle player Jack Leslie (pictured), who is the club’s fourth highest goal scorer

But there were a number of objections, and Plymouth businessman Danny Bamping submitted an appeal against the decision which was heard at Plymouth Magistrates’ Court on Friday morning.

The council denies the claims from Mr Bamping, and the court heard evidence setting out its case that it had properly followed its policies, national guidelines and the law governing street naming as laid out in the 1925 Public Health Act.

Mr Bamping, who once appeared on Dragons’ Den, argued the decision breached national guidelines as it was ‘racist’ because it was based on the colour of the player’s skin in response to the Black Lives Matter movement.

The square was originally named after Sir John Hawkins (pictured), who sailed from Plymouth in 1562 with three ships, before kidnapping around 400 Africans in Guinea and taking them to the West Indies to be sold

The square was originally named after Sir John Hawkins (pictured), who sailed from Plymouth in 1562 with three ships, before kidnapping around 400 Africans in Guinea and taking them to the West Indies to be sold

He claimed the council had failed to comply with its policy by not consulting about the change with people connected with the square, and he argued it had not properly consulted with Jack Leslie’s family.

He said the council should have considered other locations to name after the player, and proposed an unnamed road leading to the Home Park stadium of Plymouth Argyle, where a statue of the player will be placed.

Mr Bamping claimed the renaming decision was wrong and illogical because it did not take into account the full history of Sir John Hawkins, who was a Plymouth MP and played a leading role as a naval commander in the defeat of the Spanish Armada, at a time in history when slave trading was legal.

Sir John Franklin Square in the Barbican district of Plymouth commemorates the slave traders first sailing out to Africa with three ships, which he used to take 400 Africans into slavery

Sir John Franklin Square in the Barbican district of Plymouth commemorates the slave traders first sailing out to Africa with three ships, which he used to take 400 Africans into slavery 

He argued that many people did not want the name changed, including 54 who had written to the court objecting to the decision, although their letters did not qualify as notices of appeal under the legal process.

Mr Bamping also argued that the 1925 Act used the word ‘alter’ rather than ‘change’ or ‘rename’, which he claimed meant councils could only make alterations to an existing name, rather than rename a street.

The council’s case is that it has the power to carry out the renaming under the Act and it has fully met with the requirements of the law, national guidance and its own policies on street renaming.

It says a notice of the proposal was properly posted on the square, there are no residents of the square to consult, the council obtained permission from Jack Leslie’s family, and it explained the decision and carried out the necessary consultation.

Jane Hirons, the council’s property team leader, told the hearing that she considered the authority had followed the correct procedure as set out in national guidelines and its own policy on street naming.

She said she had seen an email from Jack Leslie’s granddaughter giving the family’s consent to a street being named after him. She said she was satisfied it represented the views of the family, which met the council’s policy.

The court heard the council had been keen to protect the identity of the relative who sent the email, because of the concerns from members of Jack Leslie’s family who felt they were being ‘harassed’ by Mr Bamping, which he denied.

Mr Bamping claimed the council was ‘over-reaching their power’ to rename the square under the 1925 law, but Ms Hirons, responding to a question, said it did give the council powers to rename.

A street sign marking Sir John Hawkins Square was removed in June, following protests in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd

A street sign marking Sir John Hawkins Square was removed in June, following protests in the aftermath of the death of George Floyd

She also denied a suggestion from Mr Bamping that the proposal to rename the square after Jack Leslie was ‘because of the colour of his skin’, but said the Black Lives Matter movement was the ‘instigation’ for the change.

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