"Just another home"

Edith Renfrow Wearing Her Camp Fire Girls Necklace -- 1930.tiff

Edith Renfrow Smith wearing her Campfire Girls necklace.  c. 1930.  

Several members of Mrs. Renfrow Smith’s extended family and the small Black community in town worked on campus and for faculty members, largely in service roles. “Grinnell [College] was really closely intertwined with our lives, monetarily and physically…. My uncle [Solomon Brown] was a chef in the girls’ dorm and his friend [Oscar Monroe] and his wife [Addie Monroe] were the chef and salad cook at the boys’ dorm.” Beyond such labor, however, Mrs. Renfrow Smith and her siblings also participated in events that made her feel the College “was just a part of us.” Through her mother’s initiative, the Renfrow children attended Sunday vespers on campus, and the family worshipped at the Congregational Church, which counted many College faculty and administrators among its members. 

The Young Women’s Christian Association [YWCA] was another source of connection. A popular organization on college campuses in the early decades of the 20th century, the YWCA encouraged women students to build community on campus and in town. Grinnell College’s YWCA hosted outreach to town's children through the Uncle Sam’s Club.

“College students came down every Sunday and did things with us from that neighborhood…. It gave those students who were going into social work, or whatever they were going into, an opportunity to work with young children…. That’s where I met Rebecca Conard and [her mother] Mrs. Conard [Dr. Laetitia Conard], and that was where they formed our Campfire Girls [troop] and they took us to camp for the first time…. Oh, that was the greatest and Mrs. Conard taught us about the stars.”

 

Mrs. Smith’s troop leader, Dr. Laetitia Conard, was not only the wife of the eminent botanist Henry Conard, an authority on mosses and waterlilies, but a professor in her own right, a community activist, and the foremother of the sociology department at Grinnell.

Although all Mrs. Renfrow Smith’s siblings earned their bachelor’s degrees, she was unique in that she was the only Renfrow child who “said I wasn’t going to college unless I’d go to Grinnell College.” Even before her positive interactions as a child with Grinnell College women students, Mrs. Renfrow Smith’s desire to become a Grinnellian was deeply shaped by the example of the Rosenwald Fellows. These African American men attended Grinnell from 1918-1925, with half-tuition scholarships provided by the Rosenwald Foundation and matched by the College.  The Renfrows hosted these scholars and served as the men’s social center; in turn, the young scholars' presence in her home deepened her sense of connection to the College. “Of course since ours was the oldest family and since my sisters were older, that was their social life, and they came to the house on Sundays to play the piano and have dinner and what have you.” The impact of these Black college men on the young Mrs. Smith was significant:

“I’m just a little kid. And here are these Black [men]….  They meant so much because there were so few of us…. It’s so exciting, you know…. And see, here are these [men] from all over, and they’re in our house. And in our parlor!”

At the Renfrow home, these Black men were welcomed, fed, and made to feel their presence was important.