Dear Members of the Yale Community,
I write to share the news that the Yale board of trustees has voted to confer the M.A. Privatim degree on the Reverend James W. C. Pennington (c. 1807-1870) and the Reverend Alexander Crummell (1819-1898), effective today.
Both men studied theology at Yale: Pennington from 1834 to 1837 and Crummell in 1840 and 1841. Because they were Black, however, the university did not allow them to register formally for classes or matriculate for a degree. Pennington and Crummell could not participate in classroom discussions or access library resources. Despite suffering these and other injustices, they audited classes and went on to become noted pastors, guiding others with dignity and conscience toward liberation and equality. Pennington, born enslaved, published a powerful autobiography, The Fugitive Blacksmith, as well as the first African American history textbook. Crummell was a pan-African scholar and organizer and founded the American Negro Academy in Washington, D.C. Both were leaders in the abolition movement.
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. In the nineteenth century, the board of trustees awarded this honorary master’s degree to individuals who were unable to complete their studies due to special circumstances. That historical context has resonance for these two visionary leaders who studied at Yale and took bold action in the face of unrelenting racism during the nineteenth century.
In its deliberations on this matter, the board of trustees benefited from research conducted by the Yale and Slavery Working Group as well as the work of student and alumni organizations. Since October 2020, members of the Yale and Slavery Working Group, chaired by Sterling Professor of History David Blight, have been helping our community better understand Yale’s history, specifically the university’s formative ties to slavery and the slave trade.
Although no formal university records regarding Crummell and Pennington have been found, the Yale and Slavery Working Group has reviewed and brought together scholarship and other sources to document their studies at Yale. This includes contemporary biographies of Crummell by Wilson Jeremiah Moses and of Pennington by Christopher L. Webber; Pennington’s testimony of his time at Yale in an 1851 address that was quoted in Frederick Douglass’ Paper; an 1866 capsule biography of Crummell in Harper’s Weekly; and the diaries of the Reverend Harry Croswell, Yale alumnus and pastor of Trinity Church on the New Haven Green, as cited by Randall Burkett.
Pennington’s legacy has been recovered in our community in recent decades. He has been honored in several ways, including a Yale Divinity School classroom named for him; a portrait in the Divinity School’s Common Room; and a Yale-funded scholarship, the Pennington Fellowship, for New Haven high school graduates to attend Historically Black Colleges and Universities. The Pennington Legacy Group (organized by current Yale Divinity School students), Graduate and Professional Student Senate, Yale Divinity Student Government, Yale College Council, and others have worked thoughtfully to ensure Pennington’s accomplishments and contributions are remembered. It is right also to honor Crummell. The similarity of his and Pennington’s time at Yale was noted in 2003 by Terrence Taylor and Teresa Howell, then students at Yale Divinity School, in a publication of milestones of the Black presence at the school. 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.
The decision to confer Yale degrees on Pennington and Crummell and the initiatives we have established so far in response to the research brought forth by the Yale and Slavery Working Group are milestones on our journey to understand and reckon with our history. More work remains, and we will announce additional programs and projects as we approach the publication of the working group’s findings in early 2024.
In the coming fall semester, the university will host a ceremony to honor Pennington and Crummell and commemorate the conferral of their M.A. Privatim degrees. I will provide additional details, including options to attend in person or watch online, at the beginning of the next academic year. It will be a moment for us to reflect on our history and reaffirm our commitment to creating a stronger and more inclusive Yale.
Chris Argyris Professor of Psychology