Grinnell College, the highly rated liberal arts educational institution in Iowa, has announced that it will name its new Civic Engagement Quad Core Building in honor Edith Renfrow Smith, the first Black graduate of the college. The Civic Engagement Quad will be an off-campus dormitory in downtown Grinnell. The initial design includes 24 apartments and a first-floor pavilion dedicated to civic engagement and dialogue, which will be open to the public. The new building will be known as Renfrow Hall.
Born in 1914, Edith Renfrow Smith grew up in one of the oldest Black families in the town of Grinnell. The fifth of six Renfrow children, Renfrow Smith attended the local public schools. The Renfrow family held education in the highest regard. As a result, all of Renfrow Smith’s siblings earned their bachelor’s degrees. From childhood, Renfrow Smith cherished the dream of attending Grinnell and explained, “I wasn’t going to college unless I’d go to Grinnell College. Grinnell was really closely entwined with our lives. That’s where I wanted to go.”
At that time, Grinnell College was no haven of racial equality, and throughout her four undergraduate years, Renfrow Smith was the only Black student on campus. Renfrow Smith never let anything discourage her from pursuing her goals. She worked her way through school, participated in a range of intramural sports, and earned a bachelor’s degree in psychology with minors in economics and sociology in 1937.
After graduation, Renfrow Smith moved to Chicago, married, and raised two daughters. In 1954, she began her career as a public school elementary teacher. Upon retiring in 1976, Renfrow Smith began a 40-year second career as a volunteer at Goodwill and the Art Institute of Chicago. Now 108 years old, Renfrow Smith is the oldest living graduate of Grinnell College.
Anne F. Harris, president of Grinnell College, stated that “throughout Mrs. Renfrow Smith’s extraordinary life, she has put the lessons she learned growing up in Grinnell and the education that she received at Grinnell College to work for the common good. We have much to learn from her steadfastness and perseverance, her excellence, and her belief that we can do better. May this dedication in every sense of the word enduringly honor all that she has taught so many over generations. It is deeply meaningful and fitting that this building focused on students, their residential and learning experiences, and situated at the intersection of the town and the college, will bear her name,”