Berkeley Celebrates Alexander Crummell ’23 MAH

James Pennington and Alexander Crummell
September 12, 2023

The Yale board of trustees has voted to confer the MA Privatim degree on the Reverend James W. C. Pennington (c. 1807-1870) and the Reverend Alexander Crummell (1819-1898), effective April 24, 2023. A ceremony to confer these degrees is to be held on September 14, 2023.

Both men studied theology at Yale: Pennington from 1834 to 1837 and Crummell in 1840 and 1841. Because they were Black, however, the university did not allow them to register formally for classes or matriculate for a degree. Pennington and Crummell could not participate in classroom discussions or access library resources. Despite suffering these and other injustices, they audited classes and went on to become noted pastors, guiding others with dignity and conscience toward liberation and equality. Pennington, born enslaved, published a powerful autobiography, The Fugitive Blacksmith, as well as the first African American history textbook. Crummell was a pan-African scholar and organizer, founded the American Negro Academy in Washington, D.C., and was the first Black American to receive a degree from the University of Cambridge. Both were leaders in the abolition movement.

In April, President Peter Salovey wrote:

“Although we cannot return to Pennington and Crummell the access and privileges they were denied when they studied at Yale, we recognize their work and honor their legacies by conferring on them these MA Privatim degrees. In the nineteenth century, the board of trustees awarded this honorary master’s degree to individuals who were unable to complete their studies due to special circumstances. That historical context has resonance for these two visionary leaders who studied at Yale and took bold action in the face of unrelenting racism during the nineteenth century.”

In its deliberations on this matter, the board of trustees benefited from research conducted by the Yale and Slavery Working Group as well as the work of student and alumni organizations. Since October 2020, members of the Yale and Slavery Working Group, chaired by Sterling Professor of History David Blight, have been helping our community better understand Yale’s history, specifically the university’s formative ties to slavery and the slave trade.

An appreciation of Crummell, a Black Episcopalian forerunner at Yale, has been written by Ed Watson ’19 MAR, who is now a PhD student in Religious Studies and academic support staff for BDS.