While Edward Bouchet is considered the first black student to officially enroll in Yale in 1870, a new research effort at the Yale Divinity School has uncovered a secret history — James W.C. Pennington, a fugitive slave, and other black students attended Divinity School lectures in the 1830s and ’40s by huddling outside classroom doors to listen.
Today marks the beginning of an 18-month series of forums at the Divinity School exploring the history of theological education of blacks in America, especially concentrating on the black presence at the school. The first forum, entitled “Forging the Dream: Remembering YDS in the pre-Civil Rights Era,” will include a panel of black alumni from the 1940s and 1950s and will examine the history of race and gender at the school.
The forum series, which will be followed by the annual Parks-King Lecture, is part of a larger research project being conducted by professor of Christian education Yolanda Smith and Arizona State Unversity associate professor of American and African American religious history Moses Moore Jr. Their research project, titled “Been in the Storm So Long: Yale Divinity School and the Black Ministry — One Hundred and Fifty Years of Black Theological Education,” is focused on the history of theological education of blacks in America, specifically at Yale.
“The purpose of the forums is to introduce our research, let alums share their experiences with students and start thinking seriously about education at YDS,” Smith said.
The research project got its impetus in the spring of 2003 during a Divinity School alumni reunion for black students The project was sparked by Smith and Moore’s interest in the vast contributions of black alumni to the New Haven community and beyond, Moore said.
“The ties between YDS and the black community are extensive,” said Moore. “The stories of alumni are very inspiring and help to emphasize this linkage.”
Divinty School alumni, in addition to their involvement in churches, have become teachers at schools and seminaries, including Storer College, Howard University, Virginia Union University and the Interdenominational Theological Center. The first black professor to teach at the Divinity School was in fact a grad, Moore said.
In 1870, Bouchet became the first black student officially admitted to Yale. This change in policy is intimately connected with another piece of history: In 1872, Mary Goodman gave close to $5,000 in life savings to the school to serve as a scholarship for black students.
“Goodman’s endowment may have been inspired by the change in policy,” Moore said. “The money may have helped Solomon Coles, a former slave, to enroll officially at YDS.”
The title of the research, “‘Been in the Storm So Long,'” comes from an African American spiritual, Smith said, and was originally meant to symbolize the challenges blacks faced at the school. Yet through their research, Smith and Moore have found that the YDS experience was not tumultuous for everyone.
“For some people it was a moving experience,” Smith said. “It prepared them for challenges to their faith in the larger world — it prepared them for the storm.”
Thus, the research project has come to represent how the Divinity School prepared its black alumni to engage the world through activism, Moore said.
The research project and its presentation in the forums is one of the first attempts to document this history and establish an archive at the Divinity School for seminarians and scholars of the future.
“It’s ironic that this history hasn’t been presented given the impact YDS alumni have had in churches and the broader community,” Moore said. “These people have been movers and shakers.”
The forums, Smith said, will provide an opportunity for graduates to reflect on their experiences at Yale and also for current students to learn about the incredibly rich history the school has to offer. Subsequent forums will link the Divinity School and the New Haven community and explore black women at the school and the worldwide impact of black alumni. A final conference will focus on black Divinity School alumni who are involved in current black theological education.
As a result of the forums, Smith said, the Divinity School will hopefully make changes to some of its curriculum.
“We need to offer courses that are more culturally sensitive,” she said. “We need to think seriously about recruiting and nurturing students and faculty of color.”
Divinity School Dean Harold Attridge has supported Smith and Moore’s work.
“These are fascinating stories of how people’s lives were, how they changed and how they applied their theological education,” Attridge said.
The research project, only in its beginning stages now, will eventually encompass experiences beyond the boundaries of the Divinity School, Moore said. But the research is not meant to involve only the black presence at the school.
“We don’t just want to highlight blacks who have changed YDS,” Smith said. “There are others — deans, professors and students — who have played a significant role and we’re hoping to show a history of interracial interaction.”