‘They were men of Yale’: Two Black scholars honored posthumously

In a stirring ceremony, Yale this week honored two Black scholars who studied theology here in the 1800s but couldn’t formally register because of their race.
Zora Howard ’14 B.A. recites her poem in honor of the Revs. Pennington and Crummell

Zora Howard ’14 recites her poem, “On this Day of Their Commencement, I think About the Mothers,” in honor of the Rev. James W.C. Pennington and the Rev. Alexander Crummell, pictured in the portraits behind her. Their posthumous degrees are framed in front of the pulpit. (Photos by Allie Barton)

Members of the Yale and New Haven communities gathered this week to confer degrees on the Rev. James W.C. Pennington and the Rev. Alexander Crummell, two Black men who studied theology at the university during the mid-19th century but were barred from formally registering as students or speaking in class due to the color of their skin.

The ceremony, held Thursday at Yale’s Battell Chapel, was an opportunity for the university to honor the achievements of the two men, who became noted pastors and powerful advocates for racial justice, and to atone for having failed to embrace them as students or treat them with the dignity and decency they deserved.

As the Reverend Pennington wrote, ‘it was considered intrusive’ — indeed illegal — for Black men like himself and the Reverend Alexander Crummell to matriculate, much less graduate, from Yale Divinity School, where they were regarded as ‘visitors,’ relegated to the back of the classroom, and required only to listen — never to speak,” Yale President Peter Salovey said in his remarks. “And so today, it falls on us to reckon with our history. It falls on us to rise to our responsibility and as a university we have begun to do so.”

Yale President Peter Salovey addressing the assembly
In his remarks, President Peter Salovey offered an unreserved apology for Yale’s failure to treat Pennington and Crummell with basic decency and acknowledged that they embodied the qualities of leadership enshrined in the university’s mission statement.

Pennington, a Congregational minister who escaped slavery in Maryland as a young man, audited classes at the Divinity School from 1834 to 1837. Crummell did so in 1840 and 1841. Both were prohibited from participating in class discussions or even accessing the resources of the university’s library. And both went on to flourish despite these and other injustices.

Born enslaved in 1807, Pennington became a distinguished pastor, respected civic leader, and leading abolitionist. His 1849 memoir, “The Fugitive Blacksmith,” chronicled his experiences as an enslaved person and his journey to freedom. He campaigned relentlessly against slavery alongside Frederick Douglass. In 1841, he published the first African American history textbook.

Crummell was a pan-African scholar and organizer who founded the American Negro Academy in Washington, D.C., the first organization in the United States to support African American academic scholarship. Like Pennington, he was a leader in the abolition movement. An Episcopal priest, he founded St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, the denomination’s first independent black church in the nation’s capital.

Person holding a program book
Descendants of Reverend Pennington attended the ceremony in person.

In April, the Yale board of trustees voted to confer the M.A. Privatim degree on both men in recognition of their work and legacies. In their deliberations, the trustees benefited from research conducted by the Yale and Slavery Working Group, which is chaired by Sterling Professor of History David Blight and was formed in 2020 to help the Yale community better understand the university’s history, specifically its formative ties to slavery and the slave trade. The working group’s findings will be published in early 2024.

Yale has honored Pennington in several ways, including naming a Yale Divinity School classroom for him; adding a portrait in the Divinity School’s Common Room; and the creation of the Yale-funded Pennington Fellowship, a scholarship for New Haven high school graduates to attend historically Black colleges and universities.

Among the many other members of the community who have worked to ensure Pennington’s legacy are the Pennington Legacy Group (organized by current Yale Divinity School [YDS] students), the Graduate and Professional Student Senate, Yale College Council, Yale Divinity Student Government, and YDS faculty and staff.

No longer silenced

The ceremony began with a procession that started at Center Church, on the New Haven Green, where Yale commencement ceremonies were held until the late 1800s, and where Pennington and Crummell would have celebrated their graduations had they been granted that opportunity. Salovey and the other dignitaries were dressed in their academic regalia as they would be in a typical commencement ceremony.

The ceremony began with a procession from Center Church on the New Haven Green to Battell Chapel.

Walking in unison, the procession crossed the sun-splashed Green to Battell Chapel, on Yale’s Old Campus, where degree conferrals took place starting in the 1870s. As they entered the chapel, which was filled with members of the Yale and New Haven communities, including university leaders and New Haven Mayor Justin Elicker, they were met with a soaring performance of “Organ Improvisation on ‘We Shall Overcome’” by A. Nathaniel Gumbs, director of chapel music at Yale.

Kimberly Goff-Crews, university secretary and vice president for university life, welcomed those gathered in person and viewing the ceremony via livestream and thanked the students, alumni, faculty, and staff who worked to make the day a reality.

Kimberly Goff-Crews, university secretary and vice president for university life
Kimberly Goff-Crews, university secretary and vice president for university life, thanked the students, faculty, and alumni who advocated for rectifying the wrongs done to Pennington and Crummell.

[This acknowledgement] is personal for many of us, including me. I had the privilege along with President Salovey of signing the two diplomas and can now call these two men not only my ancestors but officially Yale alumni,” Goff-Crews said, portraits of Pennington and Crummell arranged on the chancel behind her, and framed copies of their degrees displayed below the pulpit. “This is an important moment for our entire community and our commitment to belonging.”

After an invocation by Interim University Chaplain Maytal Saltiel, students and recent alumni representing groups that have helped to ensure that Pennington and Crummell are recognized and remembered — including the Pennington Legacy Group, the Graduate and Professional Student Senate, Yale Divinity Student Government, the Yale College Council — shared excerpts from writings by Pennington and Crummell.

Ellen VanDyke Bell, M.A.R. ’24., Noah Humphrey M.Div. ’23, Maya Fonkeu B.A. ’25, and J. Nic Fisk Ph.D. ’23
Students and alumni gave voice to Pennington and Crummell by reading excerpts of their writings. Left to right, Ellen VanDyke Bell, ’24 M.A.R., Noah Humphrey ’23 M.Div., Maya Fonkeu ’25, and J. Nic Fisk ’23 Ph.D.

The following reflections come from the writings of Reverends Pennington and Crummell. Although they were not permitted to speak in class when they studied here,” said Ellen VanDyke Bell, a graduate student at Yale Divinity School, “they will be heard on this campus today.”

Then VanDyke Bell, J. Nic Fisk ’23 Ph.D., Maya Fonkeu, a Yale College junior, and Noah Humphrey ’23 M.Div. ‘23 took turns reciting from Pennington’s testimony of his time at Yale, which he gave in an 1851 address that was quoted in Frederick Douglass’ Paper, a newspaper the famed abolitionist and orator published.

VanDyke Bell: “It was considered intrusive for a colored young man to offer himself as a candidate for admission to a class, even in a Theological Seminary.” 

Fisk: “I bought my own books, etc., and paid my own classical tutors. I was refused admission to Yale Seminary.”

Fonkeu: “But I was told that I could sit with the classes as a visitor, and hear the lectures, but my voice could not be heard in the classroom asking or answering a question.”

Humphrey: “I could not get a book from the library, and my name was never to appear on the catalogue. After submitting to this, will anyone tell me that I know nothing of oppression?

The orators also recited excerpts from Crummell’s “Africa and America: Addresses and Discourses,” a collection of essays published in 1891:

VanDyke Bell: “We have a blatant problem of provincialism in our country, whose only solution of the race-problem is the eternal subjection of the Negro, and the endless domination of a lawless and self-created aristocracy.”

Fonkeu: “Such men forget… that ‘the King invincible, immortal, eternal’ is upon the throne of the universe; that thither caste, and bigotry, and race-hate can never reach.”

Humphrey: “That He is everlastingly committed to the interests of the oppressed; that He is constantly sending forth succors and assistances for the rescue of the wronged and injured; that He brings all the forces of the universe to grind to powder all the enormities of earth, and to rectify all the ills of humanity, and so hasten on the day of universal brotherhood.”

Let there be a record’

The Marquand Chapel Choir and University Church in Yale Choir
The Marquand Chapel Choir and University Church in Yale Choir lent beautiful music to the occasion.

The Marquand Chapel Choir and University Church in Yale Choir, accompanied by Gumbs on organ, led a moving rendition of “Lift Every Voice and Sing,” which is often called the Black National Anthem.

The Rev. Kim Turner Baker, pastor of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., which Crummell founded, recounted Crummell’s extraordinary life, including his tenacious efforts to obtain an education amid intense racial discrimination, his 20 years of missionary service in Liberia, and his founding of the church she now leads.

The Reverend Kim Turner Baker
The Rev. Kim Turner Baker, pastor of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Washington, D.C., which Crummell founded, encouraged the students who worked to make the day happen to “continue the fight.”

We strive to live up to the example of our founder…,” Turner Baker said. “His legacy lives on. That’s why what you’re doing today is so important. And we give thanks to you for looking into your history, and especially all of the Yale leaders assembled here today and especially all the student groups who agitated and persevered. You’re doing the right thing. Continue to fight.”

The Rev. Cleo Graham, pastor of Faith Congregational Church in Hartford, where Pennington served as pastor, spoke of Pennington’s escape from slavery, subsequent life of service, and commitment to abolitionism, including his efforts to support the Amistad captives, who were imprisoned in New Haven after overcoming the slavers who had imprisoned them.

The Reverend Cleo Graham and President Salovey
The Rev. Cleo Graham, pastor of Faith Congregational Church in Hartford, where Pennington served as pastor, came to campus on a bus with her congregants. She expressed thanks to the university for seeking to right a wrong and encouraged those in attendance to follow their North Star, just as Pennington did while escaping slavery.

Can you imagine he was only 20 years old when he left his family on the oppressive plantation in Maryland…,” she said. “There was a $200 reward for his capture. I want you for a moment to imagine being a runaway slave and your only possessions are wet clothes, worn shoes, a few stones in your pocket, and trust in God…  All you have is your feet, your eyes and your feet and prayer. And your North Star.”

Zora Howard ’14 recited her poem “On this Day of Their Commencement, I think About the Mothers,” which includes the verses:

Some wrongs cannot be righted.
Only admitted.

Let there be a record. Let there be a place to lay it safely.
To remember. There are the hands that will write it all down.
Spirit carries the record elsewhere.
Let us tend to that place, also.

An unreserved apology

In conferring the degrees upon Pennington and Crummell, Salovey acknowledged the injustice of demanding they be silent in the classroom and forbidding them from withdrawing books from the Yale library, which today holds volumes they wrote. 

Earlier, we all joined in singing ‘Lift Every Voice and Sing,’” Salovey said. “Today, full of the faith that the past has taught us — full of the hope that the present has brought us — we assemble to lift every voice that was silenced.”

Salovey referenced his Jewish faith and the start of the Ten Days of Repentance that begin with Rosh Hashanah, the Day of Judgment, and culminate with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, the great medieval philosopher known as Maimonides, maintained that when a victim [of our wrongdoing] has departed, has passed on, it behooves us to offer a confession publicly,” Salovey said. “It is in this spirit that I extend before each of you this overdue — and unreserved — apology on behalf of Yale University. It is in this spirit that I express our remorse that although the Reverends Pennington and Crummell represent Yale’s highest ideals in all they achieved, they, too, represent one of our lowest points in all they were denied.”

He praised the “grandeur” of Pennington’s and Crummell’s contributions, saying that they had fulfilled Yale’s dedication to improving the world for this and future generations nearly two centuries before the university articulated the aim in the opening lines of its official mission statement.

In their generation, they propelled society into a new era of abolition — and in ours, inspire us anew to reflect on our history and reaffirm our commitment to combatting racism and creating a stronger, more inclusive Yale,” he said.

Although the university cannot return to Pennington and Crummell “the access, privileges, and basic decency they were due but deprived of,” Salovey said, it can recognize their contributions and honor their legacies through conferral of the M.A. Privatim degrees.

 The M.A. Privatim Degrees conferred upon Pennington and Crummell.
The M.A. Privatim Degrees conferred upon Pennington and Crummell were displayed below the pulpit during the ceremony.

I take as my final words the Reverend Crummell’s message to future generations: ‘Let our posterity know,’ he wrote, ‘that we, their ancestors… amid all trials and temptations, were men of integrity.’

Today, we let James Pennington and Alexander Crummell’s posterity know, that their ancestors, were men of Yale,” Salovey concluded.

The chapel erupted in applause.

Dean Gregory Sterling of Yale Divinity School closed the ceremony with a heartfelt benediction.
Dean Gregory Sterling of Yale Divinity School closed the ceremony with a heartfelt benediction.

In closing, Gregory Sterling, The Reverend Henry L. Slack Dean of the Yale Divinity School, offered this benediction:

Gracious God,

Thank you for James W.C. Pennington and Alexander Crummell.
Thank you for their courage to come where they were tolerated but not embraced.
Thank you for their determination to serve a society that treated them as less than human. Inspire us to demonstrate the same spirit as these two sons of Yale.

Help us to confront the wrongs in our past with honesty and clarity,
Help us to confess our participation in practices that were not and are not just.
Help us to have the courage to make right what has been and continues to be wrong.
Forgive us and make us whole.

Enlarge our vision to see what could be.
Enlarge our hearts to the possibility of healing.
Enlarge our conversations to options we have not considered.
Bless our efforts to bring reconciliation to our community and beyond.



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