Yale University will honor two Black men who attended the university nearly 200 years ago with posthumous degrees.
Rev. James W.C. Pennington was born enslaved and escaped from Maryland in 1828. He was the first known Black student to attend Yale and studied at the university from 1834 to 1837. Rev. Alexander Crummell attended the institution three years later in 1840 for one year.
Neither man was allowed to register for classes formally, participate in class discussions, or use the library resources when they were students at the Ivy League university where they studied theology because they were Black, according to the University.
“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.
“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,” Salovey added.
The decision to award the honorary degrees comes after years of advocacy by Yale students and alumni including the efforts of the Pennington Legacy Group, a student group dedicated to seeing this recognition come to fruition
As they noted in an open letter to the university in March, Yale initially declined a petition to award the honorary degree to Pennington, “stating that the only exceptions are ‘sad circumstances’ in which the recipient dies before the degree is conferred.”
The letter continues, “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.”