Cecilia Lee

Rev. James Pennington, the first Black student at the Yale Divinity School, has not received a posthumous degree. My name is Noah Humphrey. I am a second-year master’s of divinity student at the Divinity School and I am working towards getting Pennington a degree. 

I know that the YDS administration tried twice to award a posthumous degree to Pennington, but, in the 2014-15 school year, the request was turned down as Yale “traditionally does not offer degrees to the dead.” 

However, looking back at the honoring of Rabbi Sacks, I wanted to see if Yale can offer posthumous degrees not just for those who have accepted and passed away before the commencement date, but also for those who have made historical contributions that have affected our campus as of today in diversity, new ideas and the fight for equity. In this fashion, I want to engage in getting Pennington an honorary degree.

This is the context taken from the Honorary Degrees page: Since the commencement of 1702, the Yale Corporation has awarded honorary degrees to recognize outstanding achievement. Currently, the honorary degrees awarded annually at the University’s Commencement are the highest honors conferred by Yale. 

From Martin Luther King, Jr. to Frank Lloyd Wright and Cole Porter, those who have received honorary degrees from Yale collectively represent the aspirations of this institution. Recipients over the years have been models of excellence and service to our students, to our graduates, to our community and to the world.

It is only recorded that in 1874, Edward Bouchet became the first African American to graduate from Yale College. But in actuality, Pennington attended YDS from 1834-39. He was barred from entering the classrooms, so he studied outside and listened to the lectures. Especially considering that YDS is the main constituent of Yale and hosts its first founding building, Yale actually awarded the first official degree to Bouchet without handing one out to Pennington –– even with his five years of schooling through racial barriers. I believe that after centuries, we should finally follow the guide of the University of Heidelberg of Germany, which awarded an honorus causia, honorary doctorate, to Pennington.

We want to bring recognition to Pennington by giving the man who took great strides and brought change to Yale through his presence and resilience the official honor he deserves. In the years before I got to YDS, the Yale Black Seminarian Council has worked to advocate the Divinity School to make this a reality. In this same manner, I am looking to convince the administration to break away from the antiquated tradition that honorary degrees cannot be awarded posthumously.

In an email that I received on Indigenous People’s Day — Oct. 11, 2021 — Martha Schall wrote that she and her colleagues in the Office of Institutional Affairs are part of the staff support for the Corporation Committee on Honorary Degrees. They said that the Honorary Degrees Committee, which Yale’s trustees lead, has a longstanding practice against granting honorary degrees posthumously. The exception that I listed before with Sacks was that he died after accepting their invitation and before the Commencement date for the degree. Conclusively, Schall wrote that the committee “would not be open to considering a nomination for Reverend Pennington.” 

In an email to the News, Schall reiterated that the committee “has a long-standing practice of not considering nominations for posthumous degrees.” She added that the committee aims to identify and honor current leaders in their fields who it hopes will inspire graduating students in their professional lives. 

Does Yale understand that after decades of advocacy, they have denied the request to get Pennington an honorary degree in times such as these, on the backs of the challenges today? After the recent murder of George Floyd by police, President Peter Salovey promised change. Here is an abbreviated version of his response: 

In 1945, Pauli Murray wrote, “As an American I inherit the magnificent tradition of an endless march toward freedom and toward the dignity of all mankind.” We have so much more to do to foster and sustain an equitable society. Instead of feeling the isolating effects of fear when our sense of community is shaken, we must remember that we are connected in more ways than we are divided. And that where we are divided, we must work, now, in the interest of unity and justice. This is a matter of the highest importance.

So, let us act as Pauli Murray would have us act toward those we know well but also those to whom we are connected simply by a common and powerful dream. I am grateful that you and I share Yale and its mission to improve the world today and for future generations. In looking forward to the work we have ahead of us, I wish you peace and strength.

To improve the world we must improve the community surrounding us and listen to the people in need. This work that has been put in by those before me warrants more than this denial. Receiving an email denying Pennington a degree on Indigenous People’s Day after a rally held by the Association of Native Americans at Yale, or ANAAY, was demoralizing. At the Saybrook College event, Joaquín Lara Midkiff spoke about the history of settler colonialism and Yale’s complicity by failing to officially recognize Indigenous People’s Day as a “Story of life, perseverance, and love as it is a story of loss, suffering, and hatred. Five hundred years on and, somehow, we are still here — albeit transformed and still fighting,” he said. Fighting for recognition for Pennington is also a pull for change for Indigenous members of the community — specifically that Yale will hear the voice of Indigenous peoples. It is a part of a storied resilience to transform and fight policy, as Yale has yet to award an honorary degree to a man whose first education was outside of the classrooms that we occupy now because of his and others’ fights for freedom and equity.  

My email was a call of passion for the change of Pennington’s degree status. I prayed  diligently for guidance and direction as to how we can move forward. Thanks to the work of Black alumni, protest from YDS students and overall awareness, Pennington now has a portrait and a room named in his honor. Despite these honors and acknowledging the school’s racialized past, YDS and the powers that be still refuse to budge in awarding Pennington his degree. Where is freedom and liberty, Lux et Veritas, if we have not given the time of day nor night to give homage to a Black man that predates all Black Divinity School students and BIPOC as a whole by awarding him a degree? 

Yale originated from YDS, and yet we have not changed the archaic structures that align with social issues. We have not fulfilled the promise of changes in equity. Change the Honorary Degrees Commitees if the MLB can showcase the Negro League; the U.S. Embassy can honor six women posthumously; Mississippi College can award a Black U.S army veteran a posthumous degree; and Grambling State can honor a deceased student’s family with a posthumous degree. 

Why can’t the Honorary Degrees Committee create an acknowledgement of that degree? It propagates an elephant in the room in terms of Yale’s history to have a policy that prevents early Black scholars from being recognized. Salovey noted that Yale in 2020 will be “acknowledging that slavery and the slave trade are part of Yale’s history — our history. We do this because moving forward requires an honest reckoning with our past. And because the purpose of our University — to create, preserve and disseminate knowledge — calls us to do so.” If that is the case, then with the name change of Calhoun College to Grace Hopper College –– selecting a great thinker and naval officer over a vice president and senator that was passionate in advocating for slavery –– then so too can we overturn this long history of denying posthumous degrees. It is time to make things right; it is time to make a new path for honoring the fallen who have paved the way for Yale students to get their degrees.

In this purpose we give and create a new path: one where Pennington, made to sit out from classes while a student, gets a degree that honors his academic excellence and strides. I respectfully ask why turn to Yale University when it is the Divinity School that has the power in the first place in this manner? There’s already support and over 500 signatures on a petition for Pennington to receive a degree, and yet we have no response or place to share these complaints again. 

This is not a resume booster, a performative action, but a decades-long protest to correct a wrong from the books of Yale University that has not been corrected. An honorary degree is needed to come even a little bit closer to justice for Pennington’s educational career at Yale, as it will break barriers in addressing the dark past that Yale holds. If Pennington has a room and a painting for him at YDS, why can’t he as a fellow YDS scholar hold a degree that we all aim for? To end with a quote from Pennington himself: “There is one sin that slavery committed against me, which I can never forgive. It robbed me of my education.” Let freedom ring with an honorary degree on his grave.