The first African-American to study at Yale, an escaped slave named James Pennington, was honored in a formal ceremony at the Divinity School Wednesday afternoon.
The Divinity School named one of its largest classrooms after Pennington, who attended classes at the Divinity School in the 1830s, although he was never allowed to officially enroll or graduate. While at Yale, Pennington was not permitted to borrow books from the library or even speak during class.
But on Wednesday, his name was the focus of more than 50 people who gathered in Divinity School classroom S100 for the renaming ceremony. Pennington’s portrait now hangs in the classroom and in the common room outside.
“There’s a sense that we’re not only righting a wrong but also recovering history both for Yale and for America,” said Divinity School Dean Gregory Sterling. “Pennington was largely neglected when I don’t think he should’ve been.”
After leaving the Divinity School, Pennington served as the pastor of the First Hartford Colored Congregational Church, today the Faith Congregational Church, where he raised funds to support a group of escaped slaves who were taken to New Haven in 1839. Pennington went on to serve as the first African-American pastor at New Haven’s Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ.
According to Sterling, the Divinity School had originally hoped to award Pennington a posthumous degree, and a petition supporting the idea received hundreds of signatures two years ago. But during the 2014–15 school year, Sterling said, the University turned down that request because Yale traditionally does not offer degrees to the dead.
At the ceremony, three speakers — the current pastors of the two churches where Pennington served, as well as Lecia Allman DIV ’16 — opened the ceremony by praising Pennington for his fearless pursuit of education and his efforts in the struggle against slavery.
In her address, Allman said she considers Pennington a role model and personally identifies with the challenges he faced as a student of color at Yale.
“In the struggle for opportunity, someone has to be first,” Allman said. “It was lonely and stressful, because if you’re the only one, you have no peers.”
Richard Taylor DIV ’18, who attended the event, said he hopes the renamed classroom will give fresh momentum to the campaign to change the name of Calhoun College.
“Pennington is an incredible role model for students, faculty and the greater New Haven community,” Taylor said. “It’s awesome that people are getting an opportunity to hear more about this man.”
Michelle Kim DIV ’18 said renaming the classroom is a step toward greater inclusion at the Divinity School, where traditionally underrepresented groups make up 36 percent of the student population.
In a lecture after the ceremony, John Witte, a law professor at Emory University, compared Pennington’s work as a preacher to the civil rights movement of the 1960s.
Calling his sermons “prophetic” and “sadly little known in American history today,” Witte lauded Pennington’s commitment to abolitionism and human rights. He likened Pennington to Martin Luther King Jr., saying the two men shared the belief that religious institutions can be drivers of social change.
“Pennington … anticipated our late-modern discovery that religion is a cornerstone of human rights,” Witte said.
At 12:20 p.m. today, History professor Jan Stievermann of the University of Heidelberg will give another lecture at the Divinity School on Pennington.