Light & Verity

A graduation, long postponed

Two early Black students receive honorary degrees.

Allie Barton

Allie Barton

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The ceremony in Battell Chapel on September 14 had many of the attributes of a Yale commencement: a big crowd, prayers, singing, academic regalia, and a procession that made its way from Center Church on the Green. But the two graduates being honored were present only in large portraits on the dais: James W. C. Pennington and Alexander Crummell, two African American men who had sought an education at the Divinity School in the 1830s and 1840s but were only permitted to audit courses and were not allowed to speak in class or borrow books. Despite these limitations, both men became prominent ministers and abolitionist leaders. After lobbying by student groups, Yale announced in April that the two would be awarded honorary master’s degrees.

At the Battell event, actress and writer Zora Howard ’14 (shown at the pulpit in the photo at right) read an original poem. President Peter Salovey ’86PhD offered an “overdue—and unreserved—apology on behalf of Yale University” for the wrong the university did the two men. “Today, we let James Pennington and Alexander Crummell’s posterity know that their ancestors were men of Yale.”

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