Statue of Limitations

We need to talk about William Penn in Welcome Park 

As Philadelphia prepares for our 344th Anniversary — and the country’s 250th — coming soon in 2026,  plans for improvements on some public parks and historical tourist attractions are already underway. In January, a proposal was put forth for Native Americans to have a display in Welcome Park, and to remove the current William Penn statue that’s been there since the park opened in 1982.

After instant backlash, the proposal was revised: Billy Penn would stay, after all, as per Governor Josh Shapiro who pulled rank over the National Park Service to ensure the likeness remain in it’s “rightful home.”

Welcome Park represents Penn’s original grid for the city, and it’s also the site where one of his homes stood until the 1800’s. It’s even named after his ship, “Welcome,” that brought Penn to Philadelphia on his first voyage. I agree it makes sense that his statue is here, but I’m disappointed this issue resolved before we had a serious conversation about who Penn was, what he did, and how could he be more relevant to us today.

First, some myth-busting. Penn’s famous reputation as a friend and advocate of Native Americans belies the real man: an opportunistic profiteer, whose ultimate goal was to displace native people from “his” land, which he was selling to Europeans as fast as he could. He also enslaved a dozen people at his Pennsbury Manor estate in Morrisville, where they farmed and herded cows for milk, and helped produce flax for linen (for commercial textiles).

All that diplomacy, all that effort – for nothing! Penn’s “Holy Experiment”, he admitted, was a failure. It never turned a profit and indeed after years of bad financial advice and management, Penn wound up owing money he could not repay. He was thrown in Debtor’s prison, where he fell into dementia and died penniless.

To add insult to injury, his sons would later defraud the local Lenape out of over a million acres of land, and ultimately spark a brutal war that also fatally fractured the Quaker party, ending their pacifist rule here forever.

Despite all this, I’m certainly NOT suggesting we “cancel” William Penn. City Hall would look naked without him, and also there’s no denying his enduring legacy of peace and tolerance. Compared to others of his era, he was a model of fairness in European-Indigenous relations – which is probably why he failed to make a buck here, come to think. 🤔

In any event, even the Lenape who were working on the Welcome Park re-design expressed no beef against Penn, and insisted they never asked for his statue to be removed. The current plan is now to keep the statue but replace Penn’s wall of achievements with new panels featuring indigenous history. Isn’t this mash-up just the thing we want to celebrate in these divided times?

Well no, actually.

I feel we’ve missed a great opportunity to use William Penn’s true history to shine a light on an injustice happening right now upon our land’s ancestral caretakers. Pennsylvania is the only state that refuses to formally recognize the Lenape Nation! They and their ancestors have been here at least 10,000 years, it’s unfathomable that they’re denied federal benefits, services, and protections that their kindred receive in other states.

Legislation has been in the works for more than three decades to correct this glaring omission, but progress has been maddeningly slow. If only the situation at Welcome Park had opened a discussion between Harrisburg, City Hall, the National Park Service, and the Lenape Nation.

Maybe with William Penn’s monument at stake, such a vital conversation would get the media attention it needs. And maybe Welcome Park’s name could take on new meaning, welcoming the Lenape Nation into legalized status. 🤝🪶🐢

Instead, we’ve been arguing about “wokeness” and suggesting that removing even one statue of William Penn amounts to cultural erasure. Please. Call me when we’re ready to confront the real moral issues here, and start fixing our mistakes.

If William Penn were alive today, I bet he’d understand.

Thoughts? Questions? My friends, I love your feedback! Please reach out in the comments below.

❤️🖤 Please consider adding your name to the Lenape Nation’s petition (8,084 signatures and counting!). Follow for other steps you can take to convince PA lawmakers to do the right thing. While you’re there, check out their fascinating archives and online trading post.

⭐ PRO TIP: Visit the Lenape Cultural Center, about an hour away from Philly, in Easton, PA. Open Saturdays from 11am – 3pm, free to browse artifacts, information, and their latest exhibit with UPenn. Don’t miss the gift shop! | 169 Northampton Street (18042).

About Michael Thomas Leibrandt 11 Articles
Michael Thomas Leibrandt is a Historical Writer Living in Abington Township, Pennsylvania.

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