Portrait of James W.C. Pennington by John Robert Dicksee, printed by Day & Son, published by Charles Gilpin, lithograph, mid-19th century /Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery London via Tom Krattenmaker
Portrait of James W.C. Pennington by John Robert Dicksee, printed by Day & Son, published by Charles Gilpin, lithograph, mid-19th century /Courtesy of National Portrait Gallery London via Tom Krattenmaker

Despite tense race relations within the United States, Yale University, one of America’s most prestigious academic institutions, recently paid tribute to their first black student, renaming a classroom after him.

James W.C. Pennington, a former slave who escaped in 1837, studied at the New Haven, Connecticut, school during a time where it was illegal in the state to educate black Americans.

Though Pennington reportedly was not allowed to speak in class, his perseverance did not go unnoticed as Greg Sterling, a dean of the divinity school at Yale, stumbled upon his history and acted as a strong driving force behind the naming.

“When I learned about Mr. Pennington’s history through one of our student research assistants, I decided to include Pennington in my 2015 commencement speech, because I thought Pennington was a great example of great courage and commitment to a larger cause,” Sterling said.

“I hope that within Yale itself and within the Divinity School, that it is a way of recognizing that African American have sense that they have a long and distinguished history in this school and claim this as their own,” he said. “I hope that within this nation, this will contribute to the recognition of the untold stories of African-Americans that exist.”

Though Pennington was illiterate during his time at Yale and could not use their library or officially receive a degree, he still became a minister and abolitionist, writing in his autobiography: “There is one sin that slavery committed against me, which I can never forgive. It robbed me of my education.”

In celebration of Pennington’s legacy and!abnew scholarship created in his name, Sterling hopes that this achievement will leave lasting impressions for students to come.

“When I announced this decision at commencement, students spontaneously stood up in their chairs and applauded,” he said. “The students overwhelmingly endorsed and supported this and I hope that continues on.”

Lauren M. Poteat

Lauren Poteat is a versatile writer with a strong background in communications and media experience with an additional background in education and development.

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