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Yale University names classroom after its first black student

James W.C. Pennington escaped slavery to take classes and do much more

It was 1828 when James W.C. Pennington escaped slavery in Maryland. He made his way to Yale University, seeking an education. At that time it was illegal in Connecticut to educate black people from other states. But that did not stop Pennington from furthering his education. He went on to become the first black to take classes there, although he could not officially enroll.

The New Haven Register reported last week that the university commemorated this historical moment by holding a ceremony and naming a classroom at Yale Divinity School after Pennington. A portrait will grace the classroom’s wall. It was all led by the efforts of a 2016 graduate of the Divinity School, Lecia Allman.

“I fought real hard for this,” Allman told The New Haven Register. “To me, he’s a role model because he set an intentional goal and he didn’t let circumstances of that scary secret he was harboring stop him.”

Pennington later became an abolitionist in New York and formed an organization to provide for former captives of the Amistad. He assisted them in continuing their education.

The Amistad captives avoided being sold as slaves by taking over the ship that brought them to America in 1839. They ended up jailed in New Haven, Connecticut, but gained their freedom after a U.S. Supreme Court case.

Kelley Evans is a general editor at The Undefeated. She is a food passionista, helicopter mom and an unapologetic southerner who spends every night with the cast of The Young and the Restless by way of her couch.