Yale to Honor First Black Student by Naming Classroom After Him

Portrait of James W.C. Pennington, the first African-American to study at Yale University.

Portrait of James W.C. Pennington, the first African-American to study at Yale University. Photo courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery-London

Over the past year, Yale University has worked to acknowledge its ties to slavery while recognizing the crucial role African-Americans played in the institution’s establishment. Now the prestigious university is moving to honor its first Black student — who freed himself from the throes of slavery.

According to the New Haven Register, a classroom at Yale Divinity School will be named in honor of James W.C. Pennington, a Black man who escaped slavery in Maryland in 1828 to become the first African-American to study at Yale. A portrait of Pennington will also grace the classroom wall.

Lecia Allman, the 2016 Divinity School graduate who spearheaded the effort to honor Pennington, said at the time that it was illegal in the state of Connecticut to teach African-Americans from other states. The freedman was barred from enrolling in the university but was still allowed to attend classes.

“They allowed him to sit in on classes, but he couldn’t speak, he couldn’t ask questions, he couldn’t use the library and he couldn’t get a degree,” Allman told the New Haven Register. “But he took the offer because he wanted the education.”

Pennington became an abolitionist in New York after attending the prestigious university and established an organization that allowed formerly enslaved Blacks of the Amistad to continue their education when they returned to Sierra Leone, the paper reports. Allman said the abolitionist also went on to form a legal organization that ended the “whites only” statute in New York City streetcars.

Yale Divinity School Dean Gregory Sterling called Pennington’s classroom dedication an important moment in the university’s history.

“… It’s a way of, first of all, honoring somebody who should be honored and has not been,” Sterling said. “And secondly, it recovers part of our past that has been neglected and shouldn’t be neglected.”

The school dean also pointed out that 36 percent of this year’s incoming class is comprised of “underrepresented groups” like African-Americans, Native Americans and Latinos, adding that “it’s critical that they know that people from the groups from which they come have also been at the Divinity School for a very long time and have played roles that have largely been understated.”

The New Haven Register reports that Pennington had been previously honored with a portrait in the YDS Common Room hanging alongside those of former deans of the school. However, both Allman and Sterling think a classroom bearing the inaugural Black student’s name is much more fitting.

“I fought real hard for this,” said Allman, who now serves as palliative care chaplain at Emory University. “To me he’s a role model because he set an intentional goal and he didn’t let circumstances of that scary secret he was harboring stop him.”

Pennington’s portrait will be unveiled Thursday during the dedication ceremony of the classroom.

Back to top