Edith Renfrow-Smith

New Residence Hall Naming Honors Edith Renfrow Smith

The first Black woman to graduate from Grinnell College. The College’s oldest living alumna. Edith Renfrow Smith ’37, DHL’19 has led an extraordinary life. Soon, Renfrow Hall will carry her name and serve as an enduring testament to an amazing Grinnellian
Jacqueline Hartling Stolze

Portrait of a young black woman in a board frame with a decorative borderMore than 100 years ago, a little girl named Edith would climb into her mother’s lap and beg, “Mama, tell me a story.”

Her mother, Eva Pearl Renfrow, would pull her daughter close and spin out family stories for her. Sometimes Eva Pearl told tales of dramatic escapes from slavery, such as the story of Edith’s grandfather, George Craig, who was sold on the auction block in New Orleans at age 14. He was so miserable, he put tobacco juice in his eyes to lower his value as a slave. It left him partially blind for the rest of his life.

But his plan worked. Craig was sold again, this time to a plantation in Mississippi where he served as valet to the master. The overseer there allowed him to escape — for a price. And so, Craig began his long, circuitous journey north to Iowa, where eventually he and his family would put down deep roots.

Edith Renfrow Smith ’37, DHL’19, who was born in Grinnell in 1914, couldn’t get enough of these stories.

“Oh, I loved to hear her tell them!” she says.

A Foundation for Change

Exploded floor plan of the CEQ shows C-shaped structure with unique first floor, interior of three residence floors with atria and a green roofThe stories of Renfrow Smith and her ancestors continue to be intertwined with Grinnell. In December, President Anne F. Harris announced that the College Board of Trustees had approved naming the residence hall in the College’s new Civic Engagement Quad (CEQ) in honor of Edith Renfrow Smith.

What is now the CEQ is the evolution of former president Raynard S. Kington’s idea of a downtown student residence. Renfrow Hall will not only provide needed apartment-style off-campus student housing, it also will serve as a reminder of the difference every Grinnellian can make.

The four-story, 125,000-square-foot CEQ, set to open in 2024, features a design developed in partnership with David Adjaye, renowned Ghanaian-British architect. He believes architecture can be transformational, bridging divides and building relationships. 

Adjaye calls Grinnell “an extraordinary college … producing unique citizens, unique students with the knowledge to be able to take on the big issues that are in the world.”

Artists rendering of a four-story building with two wings sited on a cornerarchitect’s rendering of the residence facility that will be known as Renfrow Hall

At the Crossroads

Older Black woman holds hand up while talking to a white woman in a white mask a painting of the Black woman in academic garb hangs behind them Edith Renfrow Smith ’37 and President Anne F. Harris during an October 2021 campus event celebrating the re-dedication of the Edith Renfrow Smith ’37 Student Art Gallery.

Set at the corner of Sixth Avenue and Broad Street, the CEQ will inhabit the intersection of the campus and the community, with strong ties to both. The complex will welcome both College and community members, offering shared spaces that invite dialogue, exchange, and collaboration.

Sixth Avenue might seem like the dividing line between the town and the College, but Renfrow Smith never saw it that way, says Professor Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Louise R. Noun Chair in Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies. Beauboeuf- Lafontant has conducted an extensive research project focusing on the experiences of Renfrow Smith. “That’s never been true for her,” Beauboeuf-Lafontant says. “She walked it. She crossed it. She made a path for someone like me.”

Thanks to the groundbreaking work of Edith Renfrow Smith, Black women faculty and students can thrive and succeed here as scholars, mentors, and leaders, Beauboeuf-Lafontant says. “I would hope that we would always want to do things in the spirit of Edith Renfrow Smith — to lead with kindness, to lead with self-respect, to lead with a sense that you can be a part of a small town and still make a big impact.”

Rebuilding Civic Trust

Edith Renfrow-Smith speaking at a podium“Take every opportunity to do your best,” Edith told the graduates at Grinnell College Commencement in 2019, when she received an honorary Doctor of Humane Letters degree.

The world faces complex problems that won’t be solved without collaboration extending over divides and across boundaries, Harris says. Future generations will be called upon to work together to find solutions.

“This endeavor requires determination and optimism,” she says. “It requires a commitment to civic trust.”

At its heart, Harris says, the ideas and aspirations that gave birth to the Civic Engagement Quad encourage us to abandon our separate ideological strongholds to come together and both talk with and listen to one another.

A liberal arts education offers one of the best models for rebuilding trust in our communities, she adds. “The way forward is reflected in the ways we teach and learn at Grinnell, through research, deliberation, and collaboration.

“The CEQ will serve as a living laboratory, supporting teaching and learning for our students as they engage with the community and each other,” Harris explains. “These interactions will prepare them to participate as citizens and leaders, questioning, shaping, and furthering the common good.”

Through this project and the efforts of students, faculty, staff, and citizens, Grinnell — both the town and the College — can become a national voice for civic engagement and community collaboration in a rural setting.

An Undaunted Spirit

Edith Renfrow-Smith as a young woman in a dress with an embroidered collar and bodice and a choker Edith, age 16 or 17, wearing her Camp Fire necklace and uniform

The naming of Renfrow Hall is a fitting honor for Renfrow Smith and for her family, whose members rose from enslaved persons to college graduates in just two generations. Renfrow Smith’s life reflects the value she placed on education and the deep, ongoing conversation between College and community.

“As we thought about Grinnellians whose lives and accomplishments embody these values and who have served as a positive and undaunted inspiration to others, it quickly became clear that Edith Renfrow Smith was that alumna,” Harris says. “Renfrow Hall will reside in a space that connects the city of Grinnell and the College — carrying the name of the truest of true Grinnellians.”

Get an Education

Renfrow Smith’s mother was only able to complete the eighth grade but held education in the highest regard. She and her husband, Lee Augustus Renfrow, raised six children (Edith was the fifth), and they were determined that all would earn a college degree.

“Get an education — that’s all we heard,” remembers Renfrow Smith.

A Black girl in a white dress and tights stands outside of a house Edith Renfrow at her 1929 eighth grade graduation in Grinnell

When Edith was only 5 years old, her mother began inviting Black students at the College to the Renfrow home on Sunday evenings. These Rosenwald scholars, who had been recruited to Grinnell College through a partnership between the College and the Rosenwald Foundation, made a big impression on the little girl.

She began to dream of attending Grinnell College herself one day.

As a grade-school student, she walked to the then-new Davis School, where she delighted in weekend activities sponsored by Uncle Sam’s Club, a youth club founded and staffed by Grinnell students. They encouraged Renfrow Smith and opened her eyes to a world of opportunities.

Renfrow Smith also joined the local Camp Fire girl troop, led by troop leader Laetitia Conard (one of Grinnell’s first sociology lecturers and wife of Professor Henry S. Conard). Renfrow Smith and her family attended the Congregational Church every Sunday and once during the week, where she got to know many other Grinnell faculty and staff.

After graduation from Grinnell High School in 1932 (where she was recently inducted into the Hall of Fame), Renfrow Smith achieved her dream of matriculating to Grinnell College.

“Grinnell College was a part of our family from the very beginning,” Renfrow Smith says. “I wasn’t going to college unless I’d go to Grinnell College.”

A True Grinnellian

Edith Renfrow-Smith in academic robes Edith poses in cap and gown on her Grinnell College graduation day in 1937

But it wasn’t easy. Renfrow Smith worked her way through Grinnell as a secretary (she typed 60 words a minute) and lived at home to save money. In 1933–34, tuition was $275. She was the only Black student on campus at the time.

Renfrow Smith wasn’t about to let anything stop her from enjoying college life. “I was just part of the group, and I enjoyed all the group activities that we had at Grinnell,” Renfrow Smith says. She participated in women’s intramural dance, badminton, ring tennis, basketball, and field hockey. A talented athlete, she was inducted into Women’s Honor G as a senior.

As a member of Read Cottage, Renfrow Smith particularly loved the rituals of the formal Yule Log Dinner at the end of the fall semester. Women students, all in white dresses, gathered for the ceremonial relighting of the Yule log from years past. A cadre of white-coated waiters then served them a special holiday dinner.

Renfrow Smith also delighted in dancing the minuet in period costumes with her girlfriends at the Colonial Ball on Washington’s Birthday.

“Oh my, that was a time!” she says.

Grinnell Has Been My Life

After studies in psychology, history, and economics, in 1937, Renfrow Smith became the first Black woman to graduate from Grinnell College.

After graduation, she moved to Chicago to find work (she still lives there) and later married and raised two daughters. Renfrow Smith’s belief in education led her to become an elementary-school teacher, eventually rising to the level of master teacher. She retired in 1976 and spent the next 40 years volunteering at many organizations, including the Art Institute of Chicago and Goodwill.

In 2019, then-president Raynard Kington presided at the Commencement ceremony where the College awarded Renfrow Smith an honorary doctorate to a standing ovation from the graduates and assembled crowd. “Grinnell has been my life,” she told the audience. At 108, Renfrow Smith is the College’s oldest alum.

Focusing on the Good

Three Black women pose for the camera Professor and Louise R. Noun Chair in Gender, Women’s, and Sexuality Studies Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Edith Renfrow Smith ’37, and Feven Getachew ’24

We can all learn from Edith Renfrow Smith, Harris says. “She loves this place with a clear-eyed acceptance of its shortcomings and potential.”

Renfrow Smith continues to be an active participant of the life of the College. She has developed a close relationship with Feven Getachew ’24, an international student from Ethiopia whom she met through Beauboeuf-Lafontant’s research. For Getachew, Renfrow Smith is both an inspiration and a challenge.

“I think it’s very hard to live up to her legacy, but I think we can at least try,” Getachew says.

Renfrow Smith’s wholehearted love for her hometown and her College is unconditional. And she has never stopped believing that we can do better.

Her optimism, her resilience, her dedication to the common good, and most of all her love for Grinnell make the naming of Renfrow Hall in her honor the perfect choice. Renfrow Hall will serve as the embodiment of the enduring and evolving relationship between the College and the community and an enduring testament to an amazing Grinnellian.

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