Yale Divinity School Commissions Painting of First African-American to Take Classes

Yale Divinity School has commissioned an original oil portrait of James W.C. Pennington, the first African American to attend classes at Yale. The painting was commissioned to honor Pennington’s story as an important abolitionist and minister.

The Pennington portrait was created by Brooklyn-based artist Jas Knight, who is originally from Hartford. The portrait is now on display in the Divinity School’s Common Room among other portraits of historically significant professors and deans.

In the 1830s, Pennington, an escapee from slavery in Maryland and an aspiring minister, audited classes at the Divinity School even though he was not allowed to officially enroll. He was permitted to sit in the back of the classroom and listen. He was not allowed to speak during classes or borrow books from the library.

Since earning a degree was out of the question for a Black man at Yale at that time, Pennington took what he was offered and made the most of it. He went on to be ordained as a minister and became a respected civic leader and leading abolitionist. Pennington wrote years later, “There is one sin that slavery committed against me, which I can never forgive. It robbed me of my education.”

More information on Pennington can be found in his memoir The Fugitive Blacksmith: Or, Events in the History of James W. C. Pennington, Pastor of a Presbyterian Church, New York, Formerly a Slave in the State of Maryland, United States.

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