The first black woman to graduate from Grinnell College looks back on the first 106 years of her life: “No one is better than you”


On those distant Sundays in Iowa, Eva Pearl, Edith Renfrow Smith’s mother, made Jell-O with black walnuts. Her older sister Helen was playing the piano in their 1st Avenue home, and the young men from Grinnell College gathered around. It was in the 1920s.

“They would come in, sing songs – not all of them, those who liked to sing,†said Smith, 106. “They were 10.”

Those details – the nuts, which some guests sang, some didn’t, and exactly how many came nearly 100 years ago – are typical of the precise and precise memories of Smith, who turns 107 on July 14.

She recalls that these visitors were not just any undergraduate students at Grinnell, but the 10 black students who received scholarships from Julius Rosenwald, the Chicago Sears executive who donated millions of dollars to promote the education of blacks.

They frequented the Renfrow House on Sundays because it was one of the few black houses in town, and their example inspired Smith to later date Grinnell herself – Class of ’37, the first African American woman to graduate there.

It may sound impressive. But if one quality stands out when visiting Smith at her tidy apartment in the Bethany Retirement Community on North Ashland Avenue, it’s that she’s never too impressed with herself or someone else. ‘other.

A photo in a family album shows Edith Renfrow Smith’s grandfather, George Craig (seated center left), with his grandmother (his wife), Eliza Jane Craig, and their family. The Craigs were born into slavery.
Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

“When my nephew found out that I had met Amelia Earhart, he had a seizure,†she recalls. “I said, ‘She’s like everyone else.’ She came to Grinnell. Everyone who was famous came to Grinnell.

As you shake hands with Renfrow, it’s impossible not to think that you are shaking hands with a woman whose grandparents were born into slavery. She remembers them too.

“My grandfather is from Virginia. His father was a white landlord. My grandmother was born in South Carolina. Her father was a French and her mother was a slave, but she was not entirely a slave. They wouldn’t put a black slave in the house. Both were partly white, so as a result you know they’ve mixed with white before. It made no difference. You might look white; you were slaves.

Edith Renfrow was born in 1914 in Grinnell, where her father Lee was the chef at the Monroe Hotel. His earliest memories relate to the end of the First World War.

“The only thing I remember is the song ‘Over There’,†she said. That, and a neighbor who lost both legs in the war. And the parades she wouldn’t watch.

“The cemetery was in front of our house; they buried a number of soldiers in the cemetery, â€she said. “I always hid in the closet because I was afraid of the paperclip.”

    A photo of Edith Renfrow Smith's childhood home in Grinnell, Iowa, in a family photo album.  She showed the album to a reporter at her home in Ravenswood on Friday, June 18, 2021.

A photo of Edith Renfrow Smith’s childhood home in Grinnell, Iowa, in a family photo album.
Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

At that time, she played a prank on her grandfather.

“My grandfather was 80,†she says. “My grandfather was George or Joseph. Not that she is uncertain; he had both names.

“And my grandmother was Eliza Jane, “ she continued, giving a musical note to the name of a woman who had come to Iowa in a boxcar. “She was named after her mother” – a slave woman became the mistress of this Frenchman, a planter in South Carolina. A woman who saw her freedom injunction burn in front of her eyes after the death of her owner. But not before she managed to send their three young children to live free with Quakers in Ohio. She never saw them again.

The prank was on Halloween and involved his younger brother Paul – Smith is the fifth of six children – shaking a wooden spool on a piece of string against the window in his grandparents’ bedroom.

“We put a spool on a piece of rope, as if you were tying bundles. My grandfather was older. He was in his room, and my brother and I snuck in and pulled the spool straight out the window. It made a noise.

Smith went to college, majoring in psychology. All six Renfrow children went to college. It was expected.

“I had to quit school and go to work,” her mother told NAACP The Crisis magazine in 1937. “My children are getting what I expected and what I missed: a full education.”

Smith was the only black student in Grinnell of either gender during the four years she attended. After graduation, she moved to Chicago to look for work.

“They sent 12 students from Grinnell to see how to find a job,†she said. “In 37, there was no work. Each of us got a job, I got a job at the YWCA, which was at 4559 South Park; $ 75 per month. It was a good place, I took Professor Thurmond’s dictation.

She then worked for the University of Chicago and as secretary of Oscar DePriest. If you’re expecting reverence for DePriest, Chicago’s first black city councilor and the first African-American to sit in Congress from a district north of the Mason-Dixon Line, guess again.

“He was an old man,” she said, eager for details. “It was old. His wife was an alcoholic. They were both old. We thought they were Methuselah.

Age was not a concern for her husband, Henry Smith.

“I was a year older than him,†she laughs. “I stole the cradle. He was a milkman for the Borden Milk Company.

Edith Renfrow Smith tells the story of her family at her retirement home in Ravenswood in June 2021. She will be 107 on July 14, 2021. She has been a teacher at Chicago Public School for 22 years.

Edith Renfrow Smith tells the story of her family at her retirement home in Ravenswood. She was a teacher at Chicago Public School for 22 years.
Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

They married in 1940 and had two daughters, Virginia and Alice.

The family moved to Hyde Park and befriended the Hancocks. Wayman Hancock was a meat inspector and his sons played with his daughter Virginia.

“These children came in and out of our house,†she recalls. “She lived in Mrs. Hancock’s house because Mrs. Hancock had plums and she loved plums. Herb and my oldest daughter were babies together. They were just big enough to look out the window. He became a musician when he attended Hyde Park High School.

“Mrs. Smith lived across the street from us,” recalls Herbie Hancock, the great jazzman. “She and my mother were best friends. Mrs. Smith deeply respected etiquette and good manners whenever I visited. the Smith family, I knew I had to do my best behavior.Our whole family had a deep respect and love for the Smith family and of course including their two daughters Virginia and Alice who were very dear friends of mine.

Alice Frances Smith remembers Hancock teaching her to play “drumsticks” on the piano. And his mother had an impact on the musician’s life.

“He went to Grinnell because I went to Grinnell,†Edith Renfrow Smith said.

“She was the first person to suggest Grinnell College to me,†Hancock agreed.

Not that Smith is doing tunes on the association – she mentioned Hancock two hours after we started our conversation. She also met Duke Ellington.

“These are just people,†Smith said. Although she had already ventured out to Mister Kelly on Rush Street to hear Hancock perform, that didn’t mean she let her daughters hang out in nightclubs.

“I was one of those stay-at-home kids,†Alice Smith said. “We lived on 45th Street. All of my friends have come down to see the reviews. I’ve never been to any of these things, I’ve never been to Motown reviews. My mother made sure I never wandered the streets.

She was also not allowed to go to the Bud Billiken parade; I thought I detected a trace of resentment.

“I don’t care,†Alice Smith said. “It was good. It got me out of trouble.

Edith Renfrow Smith shares her story and that of her family at her home in Ravenswood on Friday, June 18, 2021.

Anthony Vazquez / Sun-Times

Not that there was a lot of money for shows.

“Back then, we were all as poor as Job’s turkey,†Edith Renfrow Smith said, using a popular expression 150 years ago.

His sister Helen became a civil rights activist, but Smith was never involved in the struggle. It just wasn’t his business. Not that she hadn’t noticed how her fair-skinned husband could rent a motel room that would suddenly become unavailable when the employee saw her, much darker, waiting in the car. Or how the saleswomen at Marshall Field’s refused to serve her. It just didn’t matter.

“I don’t want to go anyway,†she said defiantly. “They don’t have anything I want. One of the things my mom taught me, ‘There is no one better than you.’ I don’t care if it’s the President of the United States. I don’t care if they have more clothes. I don’t care if they’re prettier. She would tell us every day: ‘No one is better than you.’ “

“If someone insulted her, she didn’t realize it,” said Alice Smith. “It just didn’t bother her. “

If you meet someone as extraordinary as Edith Renfrow Smith, you just don’t edit for the space. So I hope readers will forgive me if I postpone his story until Wednesday. And rest assured, I have not yet arrived at the surprising part, and I am not talking about the part where Muhammad Ali presents himself.

As incredible as Smith’s life in the 20th century was, there was something truly unexpected about the 21st, especially for a woman in her second century. Having graduated from Grinnell College in the 1930s, she returned the favor and began teaching a thing or two at her alma mater.

“It has become relevant, visible on campus,†said Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Louise R. Noun Chair in Gender, Women and Sexuality Studies at Grinnell. “His name was in the air.”

Coming Wednesday: “In the air.”

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