According to The Chicago Sun-Times, the first Black woman to graduate from Grinnell College celebrated her 107th birthday.
In Grinnell, Iowa, in 1914, Dr. Edith Renfrow Smith was born. She is the fifth of Lee and Eva Pearl Renfrow’s six children. Smith remembers a lot about her early upbringing for someone who has been alive for almost a century. She remembers her mother making Jell-O with black walnuts in it on Sunday afternoons or playing with her sister at their house on 1st Avenue. She also recalls how on Sundays, young men from Grinnell College, as well as other visitors looking to hang out at one of the town’s few Black homes, would visit the Renfrow home.
“They would come, sing songs – not all of them, the ones that liked to sing. There were 10 of them,” recalled Smith.
The ten individuals she’s referring to are the ten Black undergraduate students at Grinnell College who were awarded scholarships by Julius Rosenwald, the CEO of Chicago Sears. The pupils were Smith’s first examples of what college students looked like, and he spent millions of dollars pushing Black education.
Smith had had a modest existence with her parents and siblings up to that point. She remembers her grandparents affectionately as the grandchild of enslaved people.
“My grandfather came from Virginia. His father was a white owner. My grandmother was born in South Carolina. Her father was a Frenchman, and her mother was a slave, but she wasn’t all slave. They wouldn’t put a dark slave in the house. Both of them were part white, so consequently, you know they already mixed with whites. It made no difference. You could look white; you were slaves…My grandpa was in his 80s. My grandfather was George or Joseph (He went by both names). And my grandmother was Eliza Jane. She was named after her mother,” Smith said.
After her mother, a mistress of the Frenchman, had her writ of independence burned after his death, her grandmother was taken to Iowa in a covered wagon. They never saw their mother again after she sent her three young children from South Carolina to Ohio to be free.
After hearing these stories, Smith would grow up, with her mother emphasizing one important point: all of the Renfrow children must go to college.
“I had to quit school and go to work. My children are getting what I longed for and missed: a thorough education,” Eva Pearl Renfrow told the NAACP magazine The Crisis in 1937.
Smith became the first Black woman to get a psychology degree from Renfrow College in the same year, making history as the first Black woman to do so. She moved to Chicago after graduation, where she worked for the YWCA for $75 a month. Oscar DePriest, the first Black alderman and first Black person to serve in Congress in a northern district, hired her as a secretary for the University of Chicago and the first Black person to serve in Congress in a northern district.
Smith, who is not a fan of people, clearly described DePriest as a very accomplished individual.
Grinnell awarded her an honorary doctorate of humane letters in 2019.
She recalled an important anecdote given down by her mother that she kept onto her whole life as she celebrated her 107th birthday on July 14th, reflecting on a century of living.
“One of the things my mother taught me, ‘There is no one better than you.’ I don’t care if it’s the president of the United States. I don’t care if they have more clothes. I don’t care if they’re prettier. She told us every day: ‘Nobody’s better than you,'” Smith said.