Here's how Yale University honored its first black student

The first black student at Yale was not allowed to speak in class. Now, his name will be repeated every day.

On October 6, Dean of Yale Divinity School Gregory Sterling dedicated a classroom in honor of James Pennington, the first black student at Yale.

Pennington, who escaped slavery in 1837, was not allowed to speak, ask questions, use the library or even earn an official degree from Yale despite attending classes at the Divinity School.

After his time at Yale, Pennington served as the pastor of the First Hartford Colored Congregational Church and also was the first African-American pastor at New Haven’s Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ. He went on to become an abolitionist in New York and is known for caring for former captives of the infamous ship Amistad, who were supposed to be sold as slaves but took over the ship and served jail sentences in New Haven.

2016 Yale Divinity School graduate Lecia Allman led the campaign to honor Pennington, who is one of her personal heroes.

“James Pennington was not magical, nor perfect. He was just an ordinary man with extraordinary intention, commitment and purpose. He never lost sight of his goal, although he suffered for it,” Allman said at the ceremony on Thursday.

Dean Sterling said the classroom renamed in his honor was chosen intentionally: The seminar room sits at the entrance of the courtyard, making it the first thing people see after the entrance.

“[James Pennington] broke entrance barriers by being the first African American at Yale,” he said. It was only fitting, he said, that that particular classroom “carry the name of the individual who broke the barrier.”

At the beginning of the campaign to honor Pennington, the Yale Divinity School hoped to award him a posthumous degree, but the University turned down the request, citing its tradition of not awarding degrees to those who have died.

But in addition to the renamed classroom and a portrait in his honor, Pennington will have a scholarship endowed in his name.

“We will make it into the most prestigious scholarship we can offer to African American students at this school,” Dean Sterling said in his opening remarks at the Divinity School on Thursday.

At the ceremony, it was evident that many thought the dedication was a step in the right direction in light of other naming controversies on campus over the past year — namely, Yale President Peter Salovey’s decision last spring to keep the name of Calhoun College, named after the strong slavery defender John C. Calhoun.

In his remarks at the ceremony, former Yale University Chaplain Jerry Streets alluded to renaming Calhoun College when said he hoped the University would see that “there are other naming opportunities” beyond the one at hand.

“This [the dedication] is an important, powerful, courageous, ethical act,” Streets said. “It is one we should all celebrate, and I hope, since I am no long the chaplain of Yale University, I can say this: the University will also be inspired to do the right thing.” Streets is the current pastor at Dixwell Avenue Congregational United Church of Christ, where Pennington once served.

Students also hope the dedication of the Pennington room will be the first of many more University-wide actions to represent black alumni, faculty, and current students within the legacy of Yale.

Gabby Cudjoe Wilkes, President of the Yale Black Seminarians, says she hopes the legacy of African Americans will continue to be honored at the University.

“I hope Yale College and Yale graduate and professional schools prioritize telling the narratives of their African American alumni, faculty, and current students to their student body and beyond, with regularity,” Wilkes told USA TODAY College.

It is also up to the students, Wilkes says, to keep pushing the university to take more action even in the face of hardship.

“If you advocate for justice, you’ll have some disappointments but you will also have moments of celebration along the way. That is what yesterday symbolized — a time of reflection and celebration. A reminder that results do come from hard work and advocacy, and yet there is still so much more work to be done.”

Dixe Schillaci is a member of the USA TODAY College contributor network.

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