Yale creates Pennington Fellowship for New Haven students to attend HBCUs

The new scholarship program will support New Haven public school students who choose to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities.
Illustration of downtown New Haven

(Illustration by Eri Griffin)

Yale has created a new scholarship program to support New Haven public school students who choose to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCUs).

The Pennington Fellowship is established with Hampton University, Morehouse College, Morgan State University, and Spelman College. Yale will add to the number of eligible institutions as more partnerships are established.

It will support 10 to 12 students in each college-bound cohort for four years, with each student receiving up to $20,000 toward tuition and fees per year. When fully implemented, 40 to 50 students will receive Pennington scholarships at any given time.

This scholarship addresses, in part, historical disparities in educational opportunities for Black citizens,” Yale President Peter Salovey said Monday in an announcement to the Yale community. “It will be funded by Yale and administered by the New Haven Promise program, which the university co-founded in 2010 to put the dream of a college education within reach for young people in our home city who otherwise could not afford it.”

The scholarship program is part of a broad initiative, known as Belonging at Yale, that aims to create a stronger and more inclusive university community. Belonging at Yale efforts enhance diversity, support equity, and promote an environment of welcome, inclusion, and respect.

The Yale and Slavery Working Group — one of several programs announced in October 2020 based on recommendations from the President’s Committee on Diversity, Inclusion, and Belonging — was formed to examine the university’s historical roles in and associations with slavery, the slave trade, and abolition. The working group has released initial findings and hosted a three-day conference as it works toward publishing a narrative book next year. Chaired by Sterling Professor of History David Blight, the group’s research and scholarship will continue to inform Yale’s diversity, equity, inclusion, and belonging efforts to create a stronger Yale.

Our responsibility to discover light and truth compels us to reckon with our past,” Salovey said in Monday’s message. “Although the working group’s research activities are still underway, its findings thus far point us to some actions we can take now.”

Among its findings, the working group has revealed details of an effort by individuals within the Yale and New Haven communities who thwarted a proposal in 1831 to establish what could have been America’s first institution of higher learning for Black students.

The new Pennington Fellowship is part of the reckoning process.

The strength of institutions can be measured, in part, by their willingness to confront their past openly — and act meaningfully on what they find,” Salovey said. “The initiatives I have described here are important steps in response to Yale’s historical role and associations with slavery. They complement and will be reinforced by work planned across the university, and additional programs and projects will be announced in the coming months.”

The scholarship program is separate from and incremental to the New Haven Promise scholarship program, which remains unchanged. For more than a decade, New Haven Promise has provided scholarships for public school students in the city to attend college in Connecticut. Now, with this new program, additional New Haven high school graduates will receive support to attend participating HBCUs around the country.

“Before the establishment of the Pennington Scholarship, Yale was the only university in the country funding a Promise program for city students to attend a multitude of in-state colleges,” said New Haven Promise President Patricia Melton ’83. “The demand and interest in HBCU options has remained high, as nearly 500 Promise applicants in the last 10 years have listed an HBCU among their top three final choices.

This merit-based opportunity will be well received by our city’s public school students, who are nearly 90% students of color,” Melton said. “This can ensure that up to 12 hard-working students who are selected each year to receive up to $20,000 towards tuition can fulfill their dreams while mitigating the amount of debt they take on.”

More than 80% of the $29 million spent for the New Haven Promise scholarship to date has directly funded bachelor’s degrees or undergraduates still pursuing one. New Haven Promise also provides support to ensure academic, financial, and career entry success.

When we look at the history of this nation, we see that people of African descent have not had equal access to educational opportunities. Institutions of higher education must face the truth of our past and work together to fulfill our responsibilities to improve society today,” said David A. Thomas ’78 B.A./M.A., ’84 M.A., ’86 Ph.D., president of Morehouse College. “I am grateful to my colleagues at Yale, New Haven Promise, Morehouse, and other participating HBCUs for creating educational opportunities for hard working, talented New Haven high school students through the Pennington Fellowship. I very much look forward to welcoming Pennington Fellows to Morehouse and helping them thrive.”

Added David K. Wilson, president of Morgan State University: “Our nation’s history is unfortunately littered throughout with tragic examples of people being denied access to an education simply because of the color of their skin. We commend Yale University and President Salovey for launching the Pennington Fellowship and the bold measure it represents in righting the historical wrongs of decades past. As a result of the Pennington Fellowship, multitudes of bright high school scholars throughout New Haven now have a pathway to realize their educational dreams at top universities across this nation. We certainly look forward to welcoming many of them to Morgan State University next fall and in the years to come.”

James Pennington
A portrait of James Pennington by John Robert Dicksee. (courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London)

The new scholarship will bear the name of Reverend James W. C. Pennington, the first Black student to attend Yale. Born enslaved on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, he lived for 24 years as a fugitive before securing his freedom. Pennington was prevented from formally enrolling at Yale because of his skin color, but he audited classes at Yale Divinity School before continuing a noteworthy career as a minister, antislavery organizer, scholar, and speaker.

Despite living at a time when Black citizens were denied equality, Pennington pursued education for himself and others throughout a life lived with extraordinary courage. From 1828 to 1834, he hired teachers to tutor him in Greek and Latin and attended night school, all while working as a coachman in Brooklyn Heights and gaining prominence as a delegate at the first Colored Convention in Philadelphia. His legacy is bolstered by his work to write the first African American history textbook.

The fellowship builds on existing collaborations between Yale and HBCUs, including faculty-led research and teaching initiatives. For example, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences has been engaging with HBCU students to increase their participation in the one-year post-baccalaureate research program. In addition, Yale is increasing the number of HBCU students who participate in its eight-week-long summer undergraduate research fellowship (SURF) program.

Yale is also broadening the pipeline of prospective students through its affiliation with the Leadership Alliance, a group of U.S. universities and private companies that support the development of students from historically Black and minority-serving institutions. Students from 10 HBCUs presently participate in these programs at Yale.

Taken together, we have a blueprint for building a stronger, more inclusive, and more excellent Yale,” Salovey said. “I am grateful for all we have accomplished as a community so far and look forward to the critical work ahead of us.”

Applicants for the scholarships must be seniors at a New Haven public high school, submit an essay, provide a letter of recommendation, and have participated in at least 40 hours of community service. Fellowship applications are currently being accepted; the first group of Pennington Fellows will begin college in the fall of 2023.

For more information, see the FAQ on the New Haven Promise website, or email info@newhavenpromise.org to ask additional questions about the application process.

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Media Contact

Karen N. Peart: karen.peart@yale.edu, 203-980-2222