James Pennington, first Black student at Yale, posthumously named GPSS senator
A new proposal by the Graduate and Professional Students Senate is officially calling on Yale to grant Pennington a posthumous degree, as well as inducting him as a senator and displaying a portrait of him in Gryphon’s Pub.
Courtesy of GPSS
In the 1830s, James William Charles Pennington, a former enslaved person, made history by being the first Black person to attend classes at the Yale Divinity School and the University at large. Nearly 200 years later, on Feb. 23, 2023, the Graduate and Professional Students Senate passed a resolution to make Pennington the first person to be given a posthumous alumni seat at the GPSS, although the push to award him a posthumous degree continues.
The unanimously passed proposal, endorsed by the Yale Black Seminarians group and passed unanimously in the GPSS, acknowledges Pennington’s contributions, pioneership and scholarship in both internal and external ways. Beyond inducting Pennington into the Senate, the GPSS is formally calling on the University to retroactively grant him a Bachelor of Arts, Master of Divinity or Doctorate degree and amend Section 27 of the Board of Trustees bylaws, which currently maintains that no honorary degrees are to be given posthumously.
Noah Humphrey DIV ’23 has long been at the forefront of the push but has found little success convincing the administration to change its policies banning posthumous degrees. When Martin Luther King III visited Yale for a commemoration of his late father on Jan. 18, 2023, Humphrey saw an opportunity to re-introduce the issue in front of hundreds, and towards the conclusion of the event took a moment to ask King if he agreed that Pennington should be given the degree.
“I chose that day because it was ironic that Yale was bringing in a person for peace and change, but has not changed themselves,” Humphrey said. “Yale refused to [give Pennington a degree] because they want to follow tradition. That tradition is shading on lux et veritas, our truth and light — [but today,] this is history in the making. This is history. This is just the beginning, but I’m so grateful.”
For Humphrey, the GPSS proposal marks the ascent of Pennington’s story to a new and bigger stage, where Yale can no longer ignore its persisting legacy of racial bias against Black Americans. Pennington wrote after his time at Yale that his voice “was not to be heard” in the classroom and that he was barred from asking any questions. He could not borrow a book from the library, nor did he ever see his name appear on a catalog.
Though the proposal noted that an honorary degree cannot “change the past,” Humphrey said it will be a step in creating and nurturing a consciousness of inclusion for students of all backgrounds, cultures and races.
GPSS is now in the process of selecting an individual who shares Pennington’s values to be inducted to the Senate in his stead and represent him in future GPSS meetings and decisions. This person will hopefully also physically accept a degree on Pennington’s behalf, if Yale ultimately agrees to the proposal, according to GPSS President Nick Fisk GRD ’23.
Humphrey said his previous communications with Yale about a possible degree have all led to dead-ends. He alleges that some of his emails never received a response, and that all others were met with the same brick wall of institutional policies barricading posthumous degrees. It was hearing about the exceptions that Yale made to its policy against granting posthumous degrees that drove Humphrey to a new level of determination.
In an October email to the News, Associate Vice President of Institutional Affairs Martha Schall explained that the only exceptions — Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, Arthur Ashe and Madeline Albright — were “sad circumstance[s]” where the recipients accepted the invitation to receive their degree at a Commencement event but passed away before the day of the Commencement. She also affirmed in that email that the committee would not be open to “considering” a nomination for Pennington.
“I fought hard for this,” Humphrey said in a speech following the proposal’s passing. “Two years of people saying no, two years of people saying we don’t have the power. … Now, you can’t run away from this. No one’s ducking away from this anymore. You will have to face the truth and the light.”
For some, the ongoing journey of honoring Pennington goes beyond a degree and starts from the ground up, in the roots of Yale student culture. A.J. Hudson ENV ’19 LAW ’23, who co-chairs the diversity, equity and inclusion group at the Senate, is working to give a portrait of Pennington a home in Gryphon’s Pub. Fisk, Meredith Barges DIV ’23, Yale Black Seminarians and other students at the Divinity school are also part of this effort.
The decision behind the portrait’s future location is intentional. Gryphon’s, which doubly serves as the GPSS headquarters, is a diverse social space for all members of the graduate community and has grappled with its own history of problematic naming.
“I don’t feel like having Pennington’s [portrait] in a Black history hall is as impactful as seeing it hung up in other places,” Fisk wrote to the News. “He was an abolitionist. He was a seminarian, he was a religious leader, a thought leader — not all of his contributions had to do with African American history.”
The portrait will be commissioned and displayed in the pub under the aegis of GPSS, unless loaned out for public display at other spaces, the proposal explained.
“For decades, Yale has celebrated the diverse stories that make this institution seem like an anti-racist trailblazer,” Hudson, who co-chairs the GPSS’s diversity, equity and inclusion group, wrote in a statement to the News. “It’s high time we celebrate the stories that put Yale in a much more complicated light: the stories of those who succeeded in spite of the racist barriers erected by this institution, the stories that force our community to confront this school’s role in perpetuating and facilitating white supremacy.”
Heidelberg University awarded Pennington an honorary doctorate degree in 1849, and on Dec. 12, 2022, sitting President Peter Salovey announced the Pennington Fellowship, which will support New Haven public school students planning to attend historically Black colleges and universities.