June 1937: Edith Renfrow makes college history

Over her four years of study, Mrs. Renfrow Smith was the only Black student on campus.  In this period, the Grinnell College student body ranged from 525 to 754.  Although she recalls little rejection from her peers and faculty, her graduation was historic.  In June 1937, almost a century (91 years) after Grinnell College was founded, she became the 11th Black alumnus and the first Black alumna. Mrs. Renfrow Smith earned her bachelor's degree with a major in psychology and minors in economics and sociology.

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Edith Renfrow Smith in her cap and gown.  June 1937. 

Two of Mrs. Renfrow Smith’s strongest advocates captured the importance of her path-making accomplishment. Her mother, Mrs. Renfrow, arranged for a professional local photographer to take a picture of her youngest daughter standing proudly in her regalia.   

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Professor Wittler, who had employed Mrs. Smith as a secretary, penned an article that he submitted to the NAACP’s journal, The Crisis.  “Up From Slavery: A Story of One Graduate” was featured in the annual August issue that focused on celebrating the graduation of African Americans from both historically Black and predominantly white higher education institutions.  Dr. Wittler’s text included a photo of Mrs. Renfrow Smith and expressed the significance of her achievement:

“On commencement day this year at Grinnell College this girl, slight of figure and lithe of gait, received from President John Scholte Nollen the degree which marks the culmination of four hard years of struggle during which she earned her entire way through college, stood well above average in scholarship, and overcame a prejudice as common and widespread as our country itself.”   

June 1937: Edith Renfrow makes college history