Britain Yearly Meeting (BYM) announced on April 10, “In a step towards becoming an actively anti-racist church, Quakers will cease to name a room in their London offices after William Penn.”
Friends House contains the central offices of BYM as well as conference space available to outside groups. Approximately 20 rooms in the building are named after Quakers who’ve made a difference in the world as a way to share the Quaker story with the hundred of thousands of visitors the venue receives annually.
Following much discussion, the decision to cease naming the room in Friends House after William Penn was made by the BYM trustees, working with staff of BYM, which operates the conferencing side of Friends House.
The April 10 statement noted that “Penn, born in 1644, founded the state of Pennsylvania. He was an avid writer, defending religious freedom, democracy and pacifism. . . . However, he also owned enslaved people.”
Paul Parker, recording clerk for Quakers in Britain, said, “Racism today is rooted in the trade of enslaved people. We are committed to tackle racism and to build an anti-racist culture. Commemorating William Penn by having a room named after him is incompatible with that. Some might say we’re rewriting history. Rather, we’re completing history, by telling the whole story and deciding not to commemorate someone who had a direct involvement in slavery. Part of telling a complete history is to acknowledge how it might previously have been understood from a limited perspective. We owe it to those who live with the legacy of slavery to take steps to redress this.”
No decision has been made yet as to re-naming the room.
Friends in Britain are not alone in considering how to memorialize Penn and other Quaker historic figures. Friends Committee on National Legislation, in Washington, D.C., decided in December 2020 to rename William Penn House, a Quaker-run hostel that came under its care in September 2019, due to Penn’s slaveholding.