Honoring the Rev. James W.C. Pennington and the Rev. Alexander Crummell

Peter Salovey, President of Yale University
September 14, 2023

Distinguished colleagues, members of the Yale community, our New Haven neighbors, members of the Pennington and Crummell families, and friends: good afternoon and a warm welcome.

To those of you who are present in person, I thank you for attending.

And to those who are viewing today’s ceremony by livestream, I thank you for joining us.

It is gratifying that so many are together to commemorate this historic moment.


Earlier, we all joined in singing “Lift Every Voice and Sing.”

Today, full of the faith that the past has taught us—full of the hope that the present has brought us—we assemble to lift every voice that was silenced.

“My voice,” as Reverand James Pennington recalled, “could not be heard in [a Yale] classroom asking or answering a question.”

Nor could he withdraw a book from a library that now houses those that he later wrote—or add his name to official records in which he will soon be inscribed for perpetuity.

After breaking free from the bonds of slavery, Pennington encountered these and other barriers here in New Haven.

In short, as the Reverend Pennington wrote, “it was considered intrusive”—indeed illegal—for Black men like himself and the Reverend Alexander Crummell to matriculate, much less graduate, from Yale Divinity School, where they were regarded as “visitors,” relegated to the back of the classroom, and required only to listen—never to speak.

And so today, it falls on us to reckon with our history.

It falls on us to rise to our responsibility.

As a university we have begun to do so, such as by providing additional scholarship opportunities for local youth—including the Pennington Fellowship—to attend college, strengthening the ties that bind us with HBCUs, and fostering greater collaboration between Yale and New Haven for our shared benefit.

But there is more to do—and more yet to come.


At this moment, we assemble appropriately at a season of self-examination and of penitence.

Tomorrow evening, in my faith tradition, marks the start of the Ten Days of Repentance.

The holy of holies of Jewish time will begin with the Rosh Hashanah holiday—known, too, as the Day of Judgment—and of course culminate with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.

Often interspersed between Yom Kippur’s confessional liturgy, as some of you may know, is the following refrain:

V’al Kulam, we sing, Elokah S’lichot. S’lach Lanu. M’chal Lanu. Kaper Lanu: for all these [failures of judgment and will], God of forgiveness, forgive us, pardon us, lead us toward atonement.

Yet for all the might of these prayers and the mercy of this period, the Talmud suggests that “the Day of Atonement atones only for sins that are between people and God”—not transgressions we commit against another person, from whom we must beg forgiveness personally.

What’s more, Rabbi Moses ben Maimon, the great medieval philosopher known as Maimonides, maintained that when a victim [of our wrongdoing] has departed, it behooves us to offer a confession publicly.

It is in this spirit that I extend before each of you this overdue—and unreserved—apology on behalf of Yale University.

It is in this spirit that I express our remorse that although the Reverends Pennington and Crummell represent Yale’s highest ideals in all they achieved, they, too, represent one of our lowest points in all they were denied.


Of course, theirs is a story that cannot be told without reference to the racism and unimaginable hardship they encountered, including on this campus.

But our contrition today must not overshadow the grandeur of their contributions.

On this occasion, we must not merely lament past failings but celebrate their individual triumphs.

We must not only issue the Reverends Pennington and Crummell Yale apologies but also Yale degrees.

And today, it is my duty—indeed it is my very distinct personal privilege, speaking on behalf of the university community, past and present—to do so.


At Yale, we are dedicated to improving the world for this and future generations.

Nearly two centuries before we articulated this aim as our official mission statement, though, James Pennington and Alexander Crummell fulfilled it.

Together, they stoked the conscience of a country—and guided others around the globe toward liberation, human dignity, and equality.

In their generation, they propelled society into a new era of abolition—and in ours, inspire us anew to reflect on our history and reaffirm our commitment to combatting racism and creating a stronger, more inclusive Yale.

Although we cannot return to Reverends Pennington and Crummell the access, privileges, and basic decency they were due but deprived of, we recognize this work and honor their legacies by conferring these M.A. Privatim degrees.

In so doing, we accept the heavy responsibility of having subjected them to suffering and injustices.

But at last, we assume the immense pride of counting these two visionary leaders among the ranks of Yale alumni.

I take as my final words the Reverend Crummell’s message to future generations:

“Let our posterity know,” he wrote, “that we, their ancestors… amid all trials and temptations, were men of integrity.”

Today, we let James Pennington and Alexander Crummell’s posterity know, that their ancestors, were men of Yale.

It is an honor and a privilege to be among all of you today. Thank you for being here.