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Reverend James W.C. Pennington,
the first African American graduate of the Yale Divinity School (YDS).

As Black History Month 2024 winds to a close, new stories of our ancestors overcoming seemingly insurmountable odds continue to emerge. For Tawanda Johnson-Gray, an Arizona woman and history maker in her own right, Black excellence, achievement, and perseverance are in her DNA. She is grateful for a family lineage of activism, civil rights, and social justice that, after many years, resulted in righting a long overdue wrong. 


In September 2023, Johnson-Gray attended a ceremony to honor her fourth great-grandfather, Reverend James W.C. Pennington, who was posthumously conferred the M.A. Privatim degree as the first African American graduate of the Yale Divinity School (YDS).


On January 15, 1807, precisely 101 years before the founding of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated, of which Johnson-Gray is an active member, Reverend Pennington was born into enslavement in Maryland. As a young man, he risked life and limb for the promise of liberty away from the slave-holding state. Unfortunately though, he would soon learn that white supremacist ideologies persisted even in the North.

After running for miles to Connecticut and swimming across a river, Reverend Pennington arrived at Yale University with drenched clothes and worn shoes on his body, but dreams of a better life in his mind, and deep religious faith in his heart. Eventually, Reverend Pennington would go on to become a minister, writer, civic leader, orator, activist, and abolitionist. In 1849, he penned his memoir, The Fugitive Blacksmith, chronicling his experiences from enslavement to freedom.

But the road to conferring Reverend Pennington's degree, like his journey to YDS, was not an easy one. In fact, it took many years and the collective efforts of family members, seminarians, activists, and YDS alumni before Reverend Pennington was awarded the recognition that he had rightfully earned nearly two centuries earlier.

According to the Yale Daily News, "On September 14, 2023, Reverend Pennington received his degree from Yale University, 186 years past due. The graduate had long since passed away, but his portrait stood proudly at the back of Battell Chapel. Next to it was a portrait of Reverend Alexander Crummel. The two men attended Yale Divinity School from 1834 to 1837 and 1840 to 1841, respectively, but were prevented from matriculating or graduating because they were Black. At Yale, Pennington was allowed to sit in classes as a 'visitor,' but was not permitted to speak."

Today, we can hardly imagine what it must've been like for Reverend Pennington. Although he was literally silenced at Yale, we are encouraged by Reverend Pennington's example to maintain the oral traditions that have been passed down in Black families for generations. Had it not been for Johnson-Gray and her relatives keeping alive Reverend Pennington's story, he might not have ever received the belated recognition from YDS. 


Moreover, we might not have learned that like her fourth great-grandfather, Johnson-Gray is too a writer, civic leader, orator, and activist. In fact, Johnson-Gray, a fervent community servant, is the second vice president of the Alpha Alpha Iota Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority in Maricopa County. She leads the chapter's Connection and Social Action Committee and was recently appointed by Governor Katie Hobbs to serve on the Arizona State Board of Podiatry Examiners.


Yes, Black excellence is, indeed, in Johnson-Gray's DNA. 

Reverend Pennington's image is Courtesy of Yale's Graduate and Professional School Senate (GPSS) 

Johnson-Grays images courtesy of Tawanda Johnson-Gray


For more information about Reverend Pennington's story, please see these articles:


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