As you know, our lower school classrooms are named for prominent Quakers. Every year, the classes spend time researching the Quaker for whom their room is named. This year, the students of Penn Room have done something extraordinary, for which we thank and honor them. With the help and guidance of teachers Luis Betancourt and Rachel Pradilla, the students—Lily C., Jane F-H., Oliver H., Jasper L., Zoe L., Isabel M., Elvis P., Skyla P., Olivia V., Charlie W., and Sam W.—studied William Penn, founder of the Pennsylvania colony and advocate of religious freedom, through an anti-racism lens. What they learned was that William Penn was a slaveholder, which, they felt, made it hard to justify naming a classroom after him. After doing copious research, they wrote Beth and me a letter, which included citations to their research, requesting that the name of the Penn Room be changed.
As a class, we’ve also been discussing how [Penn’s] support of slavery did not follow the Quaker testimonies of equality and integrity. The testimony of equality says that no matter your beliefs, race, gender, sexuality, or where you come from, we are all equal. Clearly if you enslave other human beings, you are not treating them as equals. The definition of integrity is to act honestly, treat others with respect, and do the right thing even if it’s not popular. William Penn could have freed the people he enslaved but instead, even when slavery was unpopular in Pennsylvania, kept them enslaved. . . . Even though William Penn achieved some notable things in his lifetime such as establishing the city of Philadelphia, those things do not outweigh the horrible things he did. There are many Quakers who have done positive things without having committed crimes as terrible as enslaving their fellow human beings.
The class looked to Quaker practice to reach consensus. The group was not unanimous in its conclusion about changing the name of the Penn Room, and one student wrote a dissenting letter and met with Beth and me to discuss their opposition. This student articulated a principled case for allowing for mistakes over the course of a lifetime and for preserving the Penn Room name because of the wonderful memories it holds for current and former students. However, they also said, “I am leaning toward changing my opinion as well. I want to be flexible.” And in true Quaker fashion, this student agreed to “stand aside,” i.e., to disagree but not “stand in the way.”
After meeting with the Penn Room and reading their research and their request, Beth and I have agreed that we will change the name of the Penn Room. These enterprising students even researched a new namesake for their room. So starting today, this class will be known as Benezet Room, named for Anthony Benezet, a teacher and vocal opponent of slavery in 18th century Philadelphia. You can see the students’ summary of his life and work, along with the sources they consulted here. We are so proud of these students and teachers for truly living their Quaker values, and putting education into action. We are grateful to them for their diligent research, their brave activism, and their commitment to both Quaker values and anti-racism.