Man Who Escaped Slavery to Study at Yale to Be Honored with Classroom Named for Him

By Stannard, Ed | New Haven Register (New Haven, CT), October 4, 2016 | Go to article overview

Man Who Escaped Slavery to Study at Yale to Be Honored with Classroom Named for Him


Stannard, Ed, New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)


NEW HAVEN » James W.C. Pennington escaped slavery in Maryland in 1837 and, seeking an education, became the first African American to take classes at Yale University.

On Thursday, a classroom at Yale Divinity School will be named for Pennington and his portrait will grace the seminar room's wall.

According to Lecia Allman, a 2016 graduate of the Divinity School, it was illegal at the time in Connecticut to educate African Americans from other states. But while Pennington could not enroll at Yale, he was allowed to attend classes.

"They allowed him to sit in on classes, but he couldn't speak, he couldn't ask questions, he couldn't use the library and he couldn't get a degree," said Allman, who led the effort to honor Pennington. "But he took the offer because he wanted the education."

After attending Yale, Pennington became an abolitionist in New York and formed an organization to provide for former captives of the Amistad to continue their education once they returned to Sierra Leone. The Amistad captives were to be sold as slaves but took over the ship and ended up in jail in New Haven. Their case went all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court, which gave them their freedom.

In another accomplishment of Pennington, "he formed a legal association that ended the whites-only rule in New York City streetcars," Allman said. He also served as a pastor of the Dixwell Avenue United Church of Christ.

Yale Divinity School Dean Gregory Sterling said honoring Pennington is important "because it's a way of, first of all, honoring somebody who should be honored and has not been and, secondly, it recovers part of our past that has been neglected and shouldn't be neglected."

Sterling said 36 percent of this year's incoming class is from "under-represented groups, such as African Americans, Hispanics and Native Americans. …

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