The words “Another year older? Fake news!” were written in cursive on top of my vanilla birthday cake topped with extra rainbow sprinkles. While enjoying a slice, I noticed a new email. At a glance, I realized it was concerning an article I wrote last year, the one examining the George Whitefield statue in the Quad. Since its publishing, the article has been the subject of numerous emails from readers across the country. Many of them supported the statue while others did not. The email on my birthday came from a man in Georgia. He asked why Mr. Whitefield’s statue was on Penn’s campus and not located at the orphanage Mr. Whitefield founded in Savannah, Georgia in 1740.
When I visited Savannah, Georgia in 2018, I was instantly captivated by the city’s cobblestone streets and Spanish moss. Its external beauty masks its horrific history perfectly. While walking through the Historic District, there wasn’t a trace of the suffering countless Black people were subjected to on display. Instead, the first “fun fact” that spilled out of our tour guide’s mouth was about Georgia’s previous status of being a free colony.
Once my plate of cake was finished, I decided to reread my previous article. Upon its conclusion, I realized I no longer supported what I had previously written. I could no longer stand behind the words “Mr. Whitefield’s statue should stay where it has been for the last one hundred years.”
With today’s pioneering political moment, reflecting on the article makes me realize that since learning about George Whitefield’s history, I never truly felt comfortable with the statue being in the Quad, but before, I didn’t feel safe articulating those thoughts. For me, at that point, safety meant being passive. Being a first generation student at an elite university can highlight many discrepancies, but for me, in relation to my previous stance on the George Whitefield statue, it meant speaking softly and carefully. I’m done being passive. Mr. Whitefield does not deserve a public display of art on a campus that claims to promote racial equity.
I recently had the chance to get some updated thoughts from History Ph.D. candidate, VanJessica Gladney, she expressed “statues should have a purpose. And now is the time to consider George Whitefield’s statue’s purpose on our campus. Why is it there? What does he mean to our University’s history? And are his contributions to Penn so great that we can overlook the fact that he overturned anti-slave laws in the state of Georgia? A state that has been in the news for the past few weeks for racial violence against people of color.”
In 2013, Penn Today published For the Record: George Whitefield. The article lacked transparency by illustrating a false narrative of Mr. Whitefield. Ultimately, Mr. Whitefield was not a man full of “integrity, disinterestedness and indefatigable zeal” and he did not prosecute “every good work” as acclaimed by our founder, Benjamin Franklin. He was a man that lobbied in Georgia so he could legally enslave Black people. Misleading representations are hurtful to the Penn community. They are used as a tool to enable Mr. Whitefield’s statue to be deemed acceptable on our campus.
Mr. Whitefield’s actions helped create the systemic oppression Black people in the United States face today. He must be condemned, rather than praised. We can’t have it both ways. Let’s stop enshrining historically problematic individuals like George Whitefield with public displays of art on campus. As Philadelphia reckons with its own racist statues of Christopher Columbus and Frank Rizzo, now is the time for Penn to do the same on its own campus.
JESSICA GOODING is a rising College senior from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania studying History and English. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.