Dear President Salovey and Associate Vice President Schall,
As you know, the Board of Trustees is now considering a request from the Yale Graduate and Professional Student Senate to confer an honorary degree on Rev. Dr. James W.C. Pennington as a form of restitution. The GPSS passed a resolution on February 23 calling on the University to reckon with its racist treatment of Pennington while he was a scholar at Yale Seminary in the 1830s.
As organizers of the Pennington Legacy Group, we want to ensure that our voices are heard and that you understand more about our motivations and why this is the right thing to do.
Pennington escaped slavery at age 19 and changed his name for his own physical and emotional safety as a fugitive slave. His brilliance earned him a place in the Yale classroom, but he was told he could not speak in class or borrow books from the library or formally enroll as a student.
He wrote of his time at Yale: “After submitting to this, will anyone tell me that I know nothing of oppression?”
Last year, Yale University declined an initial petition to award Pennington an honorary degree, stating that the only exceptions are “sad circumstances” in which the recipient dies before the degree is conferred.
We ask, could there be a sadder circumstance than Yale’s oppression of its first Black student?
In this life death is inevitable. But the enslavement of other people and racialized oppression and exclusion are not. So, Yale must reckon with its past and its participation in systems of slavery and racist exclusion on its campus and in places of global power. This includes providing meaningful restitution to Pennington.
In 2022, Yale named a fellowship for Pennington to support high school graduates from New Haven who attend HBCUs. We applaud this first step toward reparation. But more can and should be done by Yale to provide meaningful restitution for injustices by Yale officials against Pennington when he studied at Yale. After he left Yale, Pennington blazed a trail as a de-segregationist of NYC public transit and early historian of African American life.
Pennington wrote of his abolitionist work, “These labors have all been performed under the embarrassments and liabilities connected with the position of a self-emancipated but unredeemed man.”
Certainly, some of these embarrassments were inflicted on him here, on our campus.
Yale preached Lux ex Veritas while at the very same time excluding a Black person from speaking in the classroom or formally enrolling as a student due to racist beliefs, so we know definitions of truth and light can change. We ask, are we engaging in actions today that reflect our “truth and light” if we are unwilling to face and remedy our past?
Therefore, we ask you to take this historic action of providing meaningful restitution to Pennington. He is gone, yet his legacy of pursuing knowledge despite obstacles and fighting for equality and justice is still alive at Yale. We know it is still alive, and we carry it forward as our “lux et veritas,” our light and truth.
We trust in your leadership to follow through with Yale’s commitment to reckon with its entanglements with slavery and racial injustice by finally giving Pennington his rightful degree.
Meredith Barges DIV ‘23
Noah Humphrey DIV ‘23
Lauren Maxwell DIV ‘25
Milton Gilder DIV ‘25
Kelli Hata DIV ‘25
Jon Ort DIV ‘24
Ellen Van Dyke Bell MAR ‘24