When Charles Childress and Orisade Awodola were small, their grandfather Merritt Hicks told them stories about their great-great-great grandfather James W.C. Pennington. 

“He ran and ran and ran until his feet were raw, and he could run no more,” their grandpa narrated. “And he was a blacksmith, so his hands were aching. And he kept running for freedom, for freedom.” 

“Well, what happened?” the kids asked, scared.

“Well, finally he got to a place where he had to swim across the river,” their grandpa continued, and on and on, until the kids, antsy, wanted to play. But he made sure they heard the full story. Pennington outran slavery. Then, Pennington went to Yale.

On September 14, 2023, Reverend Pennington received his degree from Yale University, 186 years past due. The graduate had long since passed away, but his portrait stood proudly at the back of Battell Chapel. Next to it was a portrait of Reverend Alexander Crummel. The two men attended Yale Divinity School from 1834 to 1837 and 1840 to 1841, respectively, but were prevented from matriculating or graduating because they were Black. At Yale, Pennington was allowed to sit in classes as a “visitor,” but was not permitted to speak.

On stage at the ceremony, Noah Humphrey DIV ’23, who lead the campaign to get Pennington a degree, read Pennington’s words from an 1851 address, his booming voice filling the silent chapel: “I could not get a book from the library, and my name was never to appear on the catalogue. After submitting to this, will anyone tell me that I know nothing of oppression?” 

Pennington had been an early pastor at the first Black church in Connecticut. Now, the congregation of Faith Congregational Church arranged a bus to take themselves to the ceremony. 

Their pastor, Reverend Cleo Graham DIV ’12, stood at the podium and began to speak. “Imagine being a runaway slave and your only possessions were wet clothes, worn shoes, a few stones in your pocket and trust in God… What if your eyes, feet, prayers, and a North Star were your only assets?” Some audience members uttered “Amen.” She felt like she was preaching. 

Tawanda Johnson-Gray sensed the spirit of her great-great-great-great grandfather Reverend Pennington. “Did you feel him?” she would later ask her other relatives. They answered, “Yes, I felt him too.”

After the ceremony, Noah Humphrey returned, tired, to the Omni Hotel. When the elevator opened, inside was a man who introduced himself as Charles Childress— the great-great-great grandson of Pennington. He thanked Humphrey for healing his family. Humphrey broke down in tears.

“I hadn’t had time to process any of this. And I still haven’t,” Humphrey said. “This was the first time that I was able to open up myself, and I was just like, ‘it was a lot,’ and he comforted me, ‘no, trust me, you did such a good job.’” As Humphrey cried, Childress began to cry too.

Reverend Pennington was a minister, writer, civic leader, orator, activist, and abolitionist. He campaigned with Fredrick Douglass against slavery. He aided the return of the Amistad captives to Sierra Leone. He wrote the first textbook on African American history in 1841 and a memoir titled The Fugitive Blacksmith in 1849. He formed the Legal Rights Association in New York and successfully challenged the segregation of city streetcars. He was the first Black student to study at Yale, completing all four years non-matriculated, and later went to Heidelberg University in Germany, which awarded him an honorary doctorate degree in 1849. Why then, student and community activists ask, did it take 186 years to get Pennington a degree at Yale?

Pennington’s descendants have preserved and passed down his story for generations. The family elders, or “griots,” are history keepers. Dr. Orisade Awodola started thinking back to the stories told by her elders in college, when she came across a pamphlet about Reverend Pennington. Wasn’t that the man who her grandpa, Merritt Hicks, had told her about as a kid? 

She visited her great aunt Helen Eula Hicks Pennington Howell, who brought out an original copy of Pennington’s memoir The Fugitive Blacksmith. Howell instructed Awodola to start recording the family’s oral history. In 2001, Dr. Awodola, by then a journalist and ancestral healing practitioner, published the stories of her elders in a book titled Ancestral and Racial Healing: An Umbilical Crisis. 

“It started with me in 1984. There was no ancestry.com, none of that. My aunt made me sit down at her table on her stationary, and write these things in pencil,” Awodola said. 

At the Yale Divinity School, activism to honor Pennington began in 2014, when Vice President of the Black Seminarians Lecia Allman DIV ’16 started cataloging Black alumni as part of Dr. Reverend Yolanda Smith’s “Been in the Storm So Long” project. At the time, the question was not yet if Pennington should receive a degree, but instead if he had attended Yale at all— he was never documented in any official Yale records. It was through her research that Reverend Pennington’s attendance at Yale was established.

By the fall of 2015, campus was abuzz with conversation about Pennington. In the spring of 2016, Allman circulated a petition calling on the Yale Corporation to grant him a degree. The petition gained 509 signatures— to no avail. In October, after continued student activism, YDS Dean Greg Sterling named a classroom and scholarship after Pennington. 

Dr. Elijah Heyward III DIV ’07 served as an alumnus on a committee to commission an oil painting of Pennington in 2018. When he was a student, he had studied the pictures of past graduating classes on the Divinity School walls.

“I would look for the faces that looked like mine, so you might imagine, finding out that James Pennington existed was a remarkable revelation that transformed my view of myself in the larger landscape of the institution,” he said. 

When Humphrey came to the Divinity School in 2020, he saw the painting of Pennington. He was curious. When he discovered Pennington had never received a degree, he was shocked. He started sending out emails, inquiring why this was the case. 

On October 11, 2021, Humphrey received an email from Associate Vice President for Institutional Affairs Martha Schall: the Yale Corporation Committee on Honorary Degrees “would not be open to considering” Pennington for a nomination. The reason? They did not grant posthumous degrees. 

Humphrey pointed to Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks, who passed away before receiving his degree. Schall replied that the “only exceptions” were the “sad circumstances” in which a person “died between the acceptance of the invitation and the Commencement date.”

The response “lit a fire” in Humphrey. He was going to find a way to get Pennington a degree. “I knew I needed to be the force,” he said.

Around the same time, Reverend Graham—who joined Faith Congregational Church as pastor in 2020, drawn to its history and connection with Pennington—started reaching out to Yale administrators regarding the degree. “We don’t give degrees to dead people. That was kind of the cryptic message I was hearing. And it disturbed me. I couldn’t stop there,” Graham said. 

Graham felt an affinity with Pennington. Her own ancestors had been enslaved. She was interested in history and genealogy, and had visited the plantation where her family was enslaved in South Carolina. Under the hot sun, she had tried to pick cotton. She felt like she could picture herself with Pennington, taking off at age 19, sleeping under trees while snakes crawled nearby. 

“And then to have the nerve to end up at Yale University?” Graham said with awe.

Graham grew up in New Haven, and saw Yale as the “cream of the crop.” It was like a “Wizard of Oz kind of place, like this is the castle,” she said.

In February 2022, she was connected with Humphrey, and the two bonded. “Keep up the great work!” Reverend Graham wrote in one email to Humphrey, “You’re making good noise.”

A few blocks away from Yale’s campus, the congregation of Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church, where Pennington was the first Black pastor, was invested in the effort too. Reverend Dr. Frederick “Jerry” Streets DIV ’75—their senior pastor and first Black chaplain at Yale—had become a mentor to Humphrey. In worship on Sundays, he would announce any updates on the degree campaign to the congregation.

The fire that had been lit inside Humphrey roared. He began to organize. Over the next two years, he wrote op-eds for the Yale Daily News, messaged and met with administrators, circulated a petition signed by 1,224 people, conducted protests during events, and worked with student groups like the Black Men’s Union and the Black Seminarians. 

“I was considered a black sheep,” Humphrey said. “I was fighting entities that could easily push me away from jobs, push me away from certain opportunities.” 

It was in January 2023 that Humphrey formed the Pennington Legacy Group and reached out to the Graduate and Professional School Senate and the Yale College Council. Then-president of the GPSS, Dr. Nic Fisk GRD ’23, was frustrated that the administration seemed to not “even seriously consider” the calls made by Humphrey. Fisk started studying the Yale Corporation bylaws, which prevented posthumous honorary degrees, and meeting with administrators. 

“There was a sense that people thought this would be a good thing to do, but it didn’t seem like anyone had the stomach to push against the specific route of doing an honorary degree proper, or that they just flat out didn’t think it was going to work, so it wasn’t worth their time,” Fisk said.

On February 23, the GPSS unanimously passed a proposal requesting Yale University retroactively grant Pennington a Bachelor of Arts or Master of Divinity degree, or an honorary degree, calling on the Corporation to amend their bylaws. For its own part, the GPSS formally inducted Pennington as an alumni member of the Senate, and commissioned a portrait of him to be displayed in Gryphon’s Pub. On March 1, the proposal was sent out to the Yale Corporation. 

On March 29, President Peter Salovey attended the annual GPSS Senate meeting. According to Fisk, Salovey said an honorary degree would not be granted to Pennington. Hearing this, Humphrey addressed the senate. 

“When are we going to be the Lux et Veritas? When are we going to be the truth and the light?” Humphrey asked as President Salovey looked upon him. “When I leave here I expect that degree, in some type of way, some type of form, because it means something to me. And if it doesn’t mean something to you? That one, the first Black, student at Yale, has still not received his degree. When we preach education is a path, education is the truth?” 

On April 3, YCC leadership sent an email to President Salovey and Vice President Schall supporting the GPSS proposal. On April 21, the GPSS met with the Board of Trustees for their annual meeting. One of their primary topics was granting Pennington a degree. Fisk said that the trustee they spoke with, Carlos Moreno, was receptive, and something seemed to switch. 

Three days later, on April 24, President Salovey announced that the Board of Trustees had voted to confer the M.A. Privatim degree—awarded in the nineteenth century to individuals unable to complete their studies due to special circumstances—on both Reverend Pennington and Reverend Crummel. 

Although activism to this point had focused on Pennington, research dating back to Lecia Allman’s project in 2014 uncovered Reverend Alexander Crummel, too. He was a priest, scholar, founder of the American Negro Academy, and another Black student who attended YDS but did not receive a degree. Proactively, and to students’ satisfaction, Crummel was awarded a degree alongside Pennington. 

Asked why it had taken until now for the degrees to be granted, President Salovey wrote in an email: “The board of trustees’s decision benefited from the research conducted by the Yale and Slavery Working Group. We do not know of university records that mention the Rev. Pennington and the Rev. Crummell, but the working group was able to bring together published works and other sources that document their studies at Yale.” 

For all those who had been working on these efforts for weeks, months, and years, the announcement was both a surprise and a great relief. 

When the news reached Reverend Graham, she felt like she could finally take “a deep breath, and say hallelujah, this was done, thank you God.” The members of Faith Congregational Church and Dixwell Avenue Congregational Church rejoiced. The day was jubilant.

What made it real for Johnson-Gray was when she saw Pennington’s name on his degree at the ceremony. “It makes me emotional,” she says, choking back tears. “Because he didn’t get to experience that. And, there’s no reason why he should not have been able to.” 

At the reception in Schwartzman Center, after the ceremony, the servers were almost all people of color. Those asked said they were New Haven or West Haven students in high school or college, and worked part-time at Yale. They wore tight black pants, white shirts, black ties, carried black trays, and were for the most part silent. 

One server, a first year at the University of New Haven, said she would have liked to see the honorary ceremony, but, at the time, was setting up for the reception.

“Walking into such an extravagant, opulent space filled with extremely educated, influential people being served by the very people they are claiming to celebrate, it just felt very performative,” Makda Assefa ’26 said.

“It shows that New Haven is a workforce for Yale,” Humphrey said. 

Salovey, in an email, said Yale Hospitality has an “initiative to hire residents of New Haven, which is a diverse city.”

Assefa, who checked coats at the reception, said that all of the Yale students who also worked the event were Black. She was reached out to individually, but most students were hired through the Afro-American Cultural Center. She said she wasn’t told beforehand what the event was, but wished she had known because she would have wanted to attend the honorary ceremony.  

Director of the AfAm House Timeica E. Bethel-Macaire ’11 said a colleague from President Salovey’s office contacted her wanting to offer the employment opportunity to AfAm House staffers first. She said staffers were told the nature of the event before signing up.

The ceremony “felt like a Yale event, not a New Haven event,” Reverend Jerry Streets said. Beyond the churches, according to students involved in the planning process, there wasn’t extended outreach inviting the New Haven community to attend. 

Johnson-Gray said there had always been a “gap” between her family and the Yale community. “We always knew he went to Yale, but we never heard he graduated from Yale,” she said.

After the reception, Johnson-Gray went to The Yale Bookstore. “Because he couldn’t,” she said. She bought pins and mugs and shirts and hats and notebooks and pennants and a license plate and a little silver Yale pendant. This, she now wears every day. It reads: “Lux et Veritas.” 

Tigerlily Hopson covers diversity and inclusion at Yale. Originally from Brooklyn, New York, she is a junior in Berkeley majoring in English.