Edith Renfrow Smith

Edith Renfrow Smith (born July 14, 1914) was the first African American woman to graduate from Grinnell College, in Grinnell, Iowa.[1] The granddaughter of slaves, Edith at age 99 was designated a “superager” in a study by Northwestern University for her remarkable memory and longevity. At the age of 104, she was given an honorary degree from Grinnell College.[2] There are also two spaces on the campus named in her honor. As of June 2021, Edith is still living in Chicago.

Edith Renfrow in her cap and gown the day she graduated from Grinnell College in 1937.

. . . Edith Renfrow Smith . . .

Born on July 14, 1914, Edith Renfrow was the fifth of six children of Eva Craig and Lee Augustus Renfrow. The Renfrows were one of the few African American families in the community of Grinnell, a small rural town in central Iowa. Both Eva Craig and Lee Renfrow’s parents had been slaves and were born into slavery. Lee’s father, Perry Renfrow, was born into slavery in North Carolina.[3] His mother, Elia (sometimes Alice) Anderson, was born in Gambia and brought to the Americas as a slave.

The story of Eva’s mother, Eliza Jane, is told in a 1937 article in the NAACP publication The Crisis, entitled “Up from Slavery,” written at the time of Edith’s graduation from Grinnell College.[4] Edith tells the story of her grandmother, Eliza Jane, and the French man who fell in love with her when she was his slave. Edith is quoted as saying, “[he] made her mistress of his house, treating her with honor and affection. When children came he accepted them as his own and gave them every advantage, even planning for their complete education by a clause in his will.[4]” She tells the story of her grandparents sending their children north at the time their father grew ill, making arrangements to pay for their lodging and schooling. When he urged his wife to go with them, she refused to leave.[4]

Edith continued the story by telling of how her grandmother was forced back into slavery: “For on the death of her master, his brothers, who had no patience with his ideas, burned my grandmother’s writ of freedom before her eyes and forced her back into slavery, dividing their brother’s estate among themselves.”[4]

The article tells how Eliza Jane was raised by Quakers in Ohio and later Iowa, where she met and married George Craig. Their daughter, Eva Pearl Craig, would marry Lee Augustus Renfrow and raise the six Renfrow children in Grinnell.[4]

Eldest daughter Helen Renfrow Lemme (1904-1968) became a celebrated educator and civil rights advocate in Iowa City, Iowa.[5] The Helen Lemme Elementary School in Iowa City is named in her honor. She is also among those listed on the Grinnell High School Alumni Hall of Fame.[6]

Alice Renfrow (1906-1997) attended Hampton University and went on to a career at the Library of Congress.[3]

Rudolph Renfrow (1907-1972) graduated as valedictorian of his class at Hampton and was a part of the New Negro Alliance in Washington, D.C. in the 1930s.[3]

Evanel Renfrow (1908-1994) received a Bachelors and Masters degree in nutrition from the University of Iowa. She became a professor at Savannah State University.[3]

The youngest, Paul Renfrow (1916-1974), served in the US Army during World War II and was part of the D-Day invasion, reaching the rank of Master Sergeant before his discharge. He attended optician school and practiced in Washington, D.C.[3]

. . . Edith Renfrow Smith . . .

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. . . Edith Renfrow Smith . . .