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BY Francis Akhalbey, 12:00pm May 03, 2023,

Yale awards degree to school’s first known black student after almost 200 years

Rev. James W.C. Pennington is regarded as first known Black student at Yale

A man regarded as the first known Black student at Yale will be conferred an honorary master’s degree almost two hundred years after he escaped slavery to pursue a theology course at the prestigious university. 

According to the New Haven Register, Rev. James W.C. Pennington, as well as, the Rev. Alexander Crummell will be honored with the degrees after the Ivy League institution’s board of trustees gave the green light by voting on it. 

Pennington was a student at Yale between 1834 and 1837, while Crummell attended the university from 1840-1841. However, the university stated that because the two former students were Black, they were barred from officially registering in classes and matriculating for a degree, adding that they were also prevented from taking part in discussions or being allowed to use library resources.

“Despite suffering these and other injustices, they audited classes and went on to become noted pastors, guiding others with dignity and conscience toward liberation and equality,” the university’s president, Peter Salovey, said in a statement

“Pennington, born enslaved, published a powerful autobiography, ‘The Fugitive Blacksmith‘, as well as the first African American history textbook. Crummell was a pan-African scholar and organizer and founded the American Negro Academy in Washington, D.C. Both were leaders in the abolition movement.”

The degrees conferred on the former students also come in the wake of Yale’s initiation of a research into its ties to slavery, as well as the slave trade. “Although we cannot return to Pennington and Crummell the access and privileges they were denied when they studied at Yale, we recognize their work and honor their legacies by conferring on them these M.A. Privatim degrees,” Salovey said.

This also isn’t the first time Yale has honored Pennington.“With these honorary degrees, we aim to extend the remembrance of Pennington; to broaden the understanding and commemoration of Crummell; and to inscribe, for perpetuity, their names in the official records of the university,” Salovey said.

Pennington was 19 when he escaped slavery in Maryland in 1828. During that time, Connecticut did not allow African Americans from other states to seek education there. Pennington eventually became an abolitionist and pastor at Dixwell Avenue United Church of Christ in New Haven, the New Haven Register reported.

The conferrals also come after the Pennington Legacy Group, as well as other student groups, called on the school’s administration to award Pennington a degree. The university initially turned down or did not respond to the demands because of its policy of not conferring posthumous degrees, Yale Daily News reported.

“I mean, the fact that we have some of the brightest scholars in the world, but we couldn’t come to an agreement on giving the first Black student their rightful degree is insane,” Noah Humphrey, a student and founder of Pennington Legacy Group, said.

Last Edited by:Annie-Flora Mills Updated: May 3, 2023


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