Yale University is giving an honorary degree to the first known Black person to study at the institution, the New Haven Register reported. Rev. James W.C. Pennington, who escaped slavery to seek education 186 years ago, attended Yale from 1834-37 and studied theology.
Along with Pennington, the Yale board of trustees voted to award an honorary degree to the Reverend Alexander Crummell, who attended the university from 1840- 1841.
According to the university, the two men weren’t allowed to register formally for classes or matriculate for a degree at that time because they’re Black. They were also prohibited from participating in classroom discussions or accessing library resources.
“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 in a statement.
Pennington published a autobiography titled The Fugitive Blacksmith. He also wrote the first African American history textbook. Crummell founded the American Negro Academy in Washington, D.C.
The university will host a ceremony next fall semester to honor the two scholars and commemorate the conferral of their M.A. Privatim degrees, a master’s degree given to individuals who were unable to complete their studies due to special circumstances.
Salovey said the school made the decision to honor the two scholars after conducting research on the school’s ties to slavery.
“The research brought forth by the Yale and Slavery Working Group are milestones on our journey to understand and reckon with our history,” Salovey said. “More work remains, and we will announce additional programs and projects as we approach the publication of the working group’s findings in early 2024.”
The university has also named a Yale Divinity School classroom and a portrait in the Divinity School’s Common Room in honor of Pennington’s legacy. Additionally, the school has launched the Pennington Fellowship, a scholarship opportunity which aims to encourage high school students in New Haven, Connecticut to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities.