Rev. James W.C. Pennington, born enslaved and escaped from Maryland in 1828, was the first known Black man to attend Yale. He studied from 1834 to 1837. Rev. Alexander Crummell attended the institution for one year in 1840. During their times as students at the Ivy League institution where they studied theology, neither man was allowed to formally register for classes, participate in classroom discussions, or access library resources because they were Black.
“Although we cannot return to Pennington and Crummell the access and privileges they were denied when they studied at Yale, we recognize their work and honor their legacies by conferring on them these M.A. Privatim degrees,” Yale President Peter Salovey said, according to the New Haven Register.
Salovey continued, “With these honorary degrees, we aim to extend the remembrance of Pennington; to broaden the understanding and commemoration of Crummell; and to inscribe, for perpetuity, their names in the official records of the university.”
The decision follows years of ignored petitions and open letters from the institution; however, Pennington Legacy Group, a student group dedicated to seeing the degrees come to fruition, is to be praised. The group’s founder, Noah Humphrey, says the move from the university is long overdue.
“We are still not done, but this means that we have set a foundation that is forever,” he said, according to the report. “I mean, the fact that we have some of the brightest scholars in the world, but we couldn’t come to an agreement on giving the first Black student their rightful degree is insane.” Humphrey, and the Pennington Legacy Group, aim to continue their efforts of having Yale correct their injustices.
Yale will hold a ceremony to honor Pennington and Crummell this fall.