In the shadows no more: Divinity School honors Minister James W.C. Pennington

James W.C. Pennington, an escapee from slavery and aspiring minister, attended classes at Yale Divinity School during the 1830s.
A portrait of James Pennington by John Robert Dicksee
A portrait of James Pennington by John Robert Dicksee. (courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London)

James W.C. Pennington, an escapee from slavery and aspiring minister, attended classes at Yale Divinity School during the 1830s.

He was refused enrollment in the school and barred from speaking in class. Even borrowing books from the library was off limits. He could sit in the back of the classroom and listen. A degree was out of the question. Hungering for an education, Pennington took what was offered and made the most if it.

The first African American to study at Yale, Pennington became a renowned pastor, respected civic leader, and leading abolitionist. Writing years after he left New Haven, he emphasized the crucial role of education in fully breaking the bonds of slavery.

There is one sin that slavery committed against me, which I can never forgive,” he wrote. “It robbed me of my education.”

On Thursday, the Divinity School will rename, S100, one of its largest and busiest classrooms, in honor of Pennington.  To mark the occasion, the school is hosting two days of events to celebrate and remember this influential but overlooked champion of civil rights and justice. 

He was undaunted by challenges throughout his life and overcame them through determination and ability,” Divinity School Dean Gregory Sterling said. “He became a very effective minister, abolitionist, and peacemaker. It’s a life that deserves to be honored. I think it is fitting that a student who could not speak while in class will now have his name spoken every day.”

Sterling said Pennington’s story is an important episode in Yale’s history that must be recovered and reflected upon.

Yale is steeped in tradition and most of that tradition is white, but not all of it,” he said. “I hope that by honoring Pennington, we enable students and faculty of color to realize that they have a long history at the Divinity School, a history that reaches back into the 1830s, almost to our founding.”

A ‘Fugitive Blacksmith’

Pennington was born into slavery in 1807, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. His birth name was James Pembroke. (He changed his name to “James William Charles Pennington” following his escape.)

Pennington recounted his childhood and flight from slavery in “Fugitive Blacksmith,” a memoir published in London in October 1849.  In the preface, he attacks the idea that kind, “Christian” masters in Maryland performed a “mild” form of chattel slavery. This notion meant little to a slave, Pennington argued, who could see his name recorded alongside livestock in his “Christian” master’s records.

However humiliating and degrading it may be to his feelings to find his name written down among the beasts of the field, that is just the place, and the only place assigned to it by the chattel relation,” he wrote.

Pennington described the hard and tenuous nature of a slave’s existence. When he was a small child, his mother and brother were given to his master’s son, who owned a plantation hundreds of miles from the Maryland shore. The son later purchased Pennington’s father and the family was reunited.

Pennington writes that slavery cost him the care and attention of his parents, whose obligation was to serve their master before their young children.

To estimate the sad state of a slave child, you must look at it as a hopeless human being thrown upon the world without its natural guardians,” he wrote.

He described being tormented by his master’s two sons and being beaten with a hickory stick by an overseer who “was an extremely cruel man to the working hands.”

When he was nine years old, Pennington was hired out to a stonemason and learned that trade. He later became a blacksmith.

A turning point occurred when Pennington watched his father, Bazil, get savagely whipped simply because their master, Frisby Tilghman, was in a foul mood.

Let me ask any one of Anglo-Saxon blood and spirit, how would you expect a son to feel at such a sight?” he wrote.

The episode sparked a desire to escape.

Although it was some time after this event that I took the decisive step, yet in my mind and spirit, I was never a Slave after it,” he wrote.

Pennington recalled being beaten for inadvertently catching his master’s eye while shoeing a horse. He decided to attempt an escape after his mother was threatened with a beating. She had confronted another slave who had been assigned to spy on the family. 

Pennington, now in his late teens, worried that an escape attempt would endanger his parents and 11 siblings; that their master would seek retribution against them and sell them off. He was frightened for his own safety, too.

He wrote of having a “strange and horrifying belief that if I did not meet the crisis that day, I should be self-doomed — that my ear would be nailed to the doorpost forever.”

Escape from another tyrant’

In the fall of 1827, Pennington fled the plantation on foot, travelling at night and hiding in the woods or barns during the day. He was captured on a road outside Baltimore and brought before a magistrate, but he fled his captors. The 19-year-old fugitive endured hunger and cold before reaching Pennsylvania, where he was welcomed into the home of Quakers William and Phoebe Wright, who sheltered Pennington for six months. William Wright began to teach Pennington how to read and write, which made the young man realize “the extent of the mischief slavery had done to me.”

As my friend powered light into my mind, I saw the darkness; it amazed and grieved me beyond description,” he wrote.

James Pennington used this Bible while pastor at the First Hartford Colored Congregational Church in the 1840s.
James Pennington used this Bible while pastor at the First Hartford Colored Congregational Church in the 1840s. It currently resides at the newly opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. (photo courtesy of National Museum of African American History and Culture)

Pennington found his way to New York City — where slavery had only recently been abolished and where slave catchers constantly prowled. He continued his education and became a schoolteacher on Long Island. At this time, he had a religious epiphany.

I not only prayed but fasted,” he wrote. “It was while I was engaged thus that my attention was seriously drawn to the fact that I was a lost sinner, and a slave to Satan; and soon I saw that I must make another escape from another tyrant,” he wrote.

He resolved to become a Christian minister, and his pursuit of education and the ministry led him to New Haven in 1834, where he sought enrollment in the Divinity School. 

He did not meet the Divinity School’s entrance requirements, as he did not have a bachelor’s degree and probably did not speak Hebrew. State law worked against him as well. In 1833, Connecticut had enacted a “Black Law” intended to prevent “the instruction of colored persons belonging to other states and countries, which would tend to the great increase of the colored population of the State, and thereby to the injury of the people.”

Pennington brokered a compromise, the terms of which are preserved, in his own words, among the archives of Frederick Douglass: “I was refused entry to Yale Seminary, but I was told that I could sit with the classes as a visitor, and hear the lectures but my voice was not to be heard in the class room asking or answering a question. I could not get a book from the library and my name was never to appear on the catalogue.”

He began attending classes on Oct. 1, 1834, and continued to do so for at least two years.

Pennington was ordained a minster in the Congregational church, and over the course of his distinguished pastoral career, he served at churches in Connecticut, New York, Maine, Florida, and Mississippi. He raised funds to support the Amistad captives while pastor at the First Hartford Colored Congregational Church, today the Faith Congregational Church, on Talcott Street in Hartford. (A Bible he used there is currently housed at the recently opened National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C.)

Pennington established himself as a noted pastor and a talented organizer. He campaigned relentlessly against slavery alongside Douglass, Lewis Tappan, and William Lloyd Garrison, and became a leader in the abolitionist movement.

He sought to educate the public about slavery and black history. In 1841, he published “A Textbook of the Origin and History of the Colored People,” which scholars have described as the first textbook devoted to the history of African Americans. His memoir, “Fugitive Blacksmith,” was so popular in England that it went through three editions in two years. In 1843, he was selected as a delegate to the second World Anti-Slavery Convention in London.

He was deeply involved in the missionary movement and visited Jamaica in February 1846 to report on the condition of the freedmen there and the progress in spreading Christianity.

After becoming pastor at Shiloh Presbyterian Church in New York City in 1848, Pennington launched a campaign against the segregation of the city’s trolley services. The following year, he attended the International Peace Conference in Paris. Later that year, Heidelberg University in Germany awarded Pennington an honorary doctorate. 

Pennington helped raise a regiment of black soldiers during the Civil War. After the war, he served briefly as a minster in Natchez, Mississippi, deep into the heart of former slave country.

He died in October 1870, while serving as pastor of an African American congregation in Jacksonville, Florida. 

Through the years, Pennington’s more famous contemporaries have overshadowed him, which makes honoring his achievements all the more important, Sterling said.

We have not done right by Pennington by keeping him in the shadows,” he said. “Honoring him now is an attempt to right a wrong, and I hope that it is also a step toward our goal to bring greater diversity to our student body and faculty, our curriculum, and our iconography.”

The renaming ceremony will take place in Niebuhr Hall on Thursday, Oct. 6, at 4:30 p.m. At 5:30 p.m., John Witte, the Robert W. Woodruff Professor of Law and the director of the Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University, will deliver a lecture on Pennington.

Jan Stievermann, professor of the history of Christianity in the U.S. at the Heidelberg Center for American Studies at the University of Heidelberg, will deliver a lecture on Pennington at 12:20 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 7, also in Niebuhr Hall.

A portrait of Pennington will hang in the classroom named in his honor. Another portrait of him was installed in the school’s Common Room during spring recess last year.

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