For many years Edward Bouchet had been considered the first African American to graduate from Yale College in New Haven, Connecticut. Dr. Bouchet earned a bachelor’s degree in 1874 and went on to earn a Ph.D. in physics from Yale. In 2014, it was determined that Richard Henry Green, who earned his bachelor’s degree in 1857, was the first African American graduate of Yale College.
But Green was not the first Black student at Yale. James W.C. Pennington took classes at Yale Divinity School in the 1830s. The university believes he was the first Black student at the university.
Pennington was born a slave on Maryland’s Eastern Shore in 1807. At the age of 20, he fled from the plantation where he was held in slavery and escaped to Pennsylvania. Pennington came to Yale in 1834. He was not allowed to enroll but could audit courses from the back of classrooms. Pennington could not participate in classroom discussions and he was not allowed to take out books from the library.
After two years at Yale, Pennington left New Haven and became an ordained minister in the Congregational Church. He died in 1870 while serving as a pastor in Jacksonville, Florida.
Now, the Yale Divinity School is naming one of its largest classrooms in Pennington’s honor. A portrait of Yale’s first Black student will hang in the classroom.
Gregory Sterling, dean of Yale Divinity School, stated that Pennington “was undaunted by challenges throughout his life and overcame them through determination and ability. He became a very effective minister, abolitionist, and peacemaker. It’s a life that deserves to be honored. I think it is fitting that a student who could not speak while in class will now have his name spoken every day.”