"That was our party": A women's extracurriculum
In Fall 1933, Mrs. Renfrow Smith began her undergraduate career and became the third known Black woman to matriculate at the College. Seventy years before, in 1863, College records document that an unnamed “daughter of Alexander, a colored resident of Muscatine,” had sought to attend what was then Iowa College and was admitted to the high school-level preparatory program. Another 63 years would pass before the second Black woman, Mrs. Renfrow Smith’s first cousin, Anna May Lucas, who was also born and raised in the town of Grinnell, enrolled at the College in 1926. Neither of these women, however, completed the collegiate course of study and graduated.
During her four years at Grinnell College (1933-1937), Mrs. Renfrow Smith was the only Black student on campus. She majored in psychology and minored in sociology and economics. Despite working two jobs and walking the mile from home to and from school, Mrs. Renfrow Smith also participated in women’s intramural dance, badminton, ring tennis (tenniquoits), basketball, and field hockey. Her athletic abilities quickly became evident. In her first year, she distinguished herself as co-champion in ring tennis through a final’s match that the Scarlet & Black student newspaper described as “one of the best examples of quoitennis exhibited this year, fast but steady.” By Mrs. Renfrow Smith’s senior year, she had earned admission to the “Women’s Honor G.” Such recognition of “women of unusual athletic ability” required participation in at least 15 intramural sports over nine seasons, as well as strong academic standing.
Outside of classes and the women’s athletic program, the group activities that Mrs. Renfrow Smith remembers most fondly are a series of women-centered traditions that existed at Grinnell through the first half of the 20th century.
Mrs. Renfrow Smith recalls dressing up and dancing the minuet for the annual women-only costume “Colonial Ball” commemorating George Washington’s birthday. Mrs. Renfrow Smith and her women classmates donned period clothing in the roles of Martha and George Washington. Men’s participation was limited to looking on from the balcony of the men’s gym where the dance was held. The tradition’s emphasis on women remains with Mrs. Renfrow Smith:
“We had that every 22nd of February, and I always went. We did the minuet! And I dressed up, and we did the minuet!... We had the dinner and then we had the dance. It wasn’t partnered. It was just all of us. All of the women. It was just the women. That was our party.”
Each fall, Mrs. Renfrow Smith also anticipated the formal Yule Log dinner. Sponsored by the campus YWCA, it brought together all the women of the College together and marked the end of the first semester. “Every year they’d bring in the same yule log and relight it. And then we’d have a Christmas tree and it was always before everybody left…. Oh, we all dressed up [in white dresses]. That was a time.”