Members of the Penn & Slavery Project were surprised and excited by the University’s announcement to remove the George Whitefield statue from the Quad, but said Penn must now take more material action to address its history and impact on the West Philadelphia community.
On July 2, Penn President Amy Gutmann, Provost Wendell Pritchett, and Executive Vice President Craig Carnaroli announced in an email that the University would remove the statue of evangelical preacher George Whitefield due to his ties to slavery in the 18th century. Whitefield successfully campaigned for the legalization of slavery in the Georgia colony, and his church meeting house on Fourth and Arch Streets became the location of Penn's first campus.
The decision comes nearly three years after the Penn & Slavery Project published a report by rising second-year History Ph.D. candidate and 2018 College graduate VanJessica Gladney addressing Whitefield’s ties to slavery. PSP was established in 2017 to uncover Penn's ties to slavery through archival research.
Gladney was shocked by Penn’s decision to remove the statue, but said it validated her work.
“It was my life’s goal to get this statue taken down,” Gladney said.
2020 College graduate and PSP researcher Archana Upadhyay was also surprised by the decision, because she said Penn had told PSP in the past that they were not willing to change the physical face of campus.
Although members of the Penn & Slavery Project hope to see further removal of statues, they said the University must take further action to address its historical ties to slavery. Rising College senior and PSP researcher Dallas Taylor said that Penn needs to implement structural change on a policy level.
“There is danger in thinking that things are fixed because we took down a statue when really there are much more systemic inequities that have to be addressed,” 2018 History Ph.D. graduate and post-doc fellow at PSP Alexis Neumann said.
“Whatever steps [Penn] takes should be done in collaboration with members of the Black community at Penn and members of the Black community in Philly more broadly,” Neumann said.
The decision to remove Whitefield's statue followed Princeton University's announcement that it would remove President Woodrow Wilson’s names from its School of Public and International Affairs and a residential college due to Wilson's record of supporting racist practices and segregation as president.
“Penn feels the pressure from other Ivy League universities and wants to follow suit,” Upadhyay said.
Penn has not confirmed when the Whitefield statue will be taken down or if anything will replace it.
Upadhyay said she would like to see a statue of W.E.B. Du Bois, who came to Penn in 1896 and conducted research in the Sociology Department on Black neighborhoods in Philadelphia, or Nathan Mossell, the first Black man to get a medical degree from Penn.
Neumann said she would like to see a statue of James Henry Wilson, a Black man who graduated from Penn Medicine in the mid-1800s after working there as a janitor. Gladney and Taylor said they would prefer to see abstract artwork from either a Penn alumnus or a West Philadelphia artist replace the statue.
In the email, the University also announced the formation of the Campus Iconography Group that will advise the President, Provost, and Executive Vice President on what other statues and memorials should be altered or removed.
Co-chair of the group and Senior Vice President for Institutional Affairs and Chief Diversity Officer Joann Mitchell wrote in an emailed statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian that the group will seek the advice of PSP.
Upadhyay said the Campus Iconography Group has already reached out to PSP requesting a list of iconography they recommend to be removed. She said PSP might recommend the renaming of 10 Quad dorms currently named after slave owners, as well as the removal of a statue of William Pepper Jr., who taught scientific racism and white superiority during his time as a Penn medical professor.
Neumann hopes that the Campus Iconography Group and PSP will establish a formal relationship with each other to allow students to consult as part of the group. Taylor said he believes that along with PSP, student groups such as MAKUU, La Casa Latina, and PAACH should be included.
Currently, no students are officially a part of the Campus Iconography Group.
“It makes no sense that there would be no students on the committee," Taylor said. "It’s absurd to have people that aren’t directly or at least the most directly affected by the landscape of the campus be the ones making the decisions. It doesn't make sense."
While members of the Penn & Slavery Project want to see the University continue to take action in addressing its history with slavery and racism, they said that removing the Whitefield statue is a good first step.
“Hopefully this is the start of more changes and awareness as to what students want, what communities want, and where the nation is heading," Gladney said.
All comments eligible for publication in Daily Pennsylvanian, Inc. publications.