First Black Woman To Graduate From Grinnell College Celebrates Her 107th Birthday


July 15, 2021

She’s had a century of lives worth living!

The first Black woman to graduate from Grinnell College recently celebrated her 107th birthday, The Chicago Sun-Times reports.


Dr. Edith Renfrow Smith was born in 1914 in Grinnell, Iowa. She is the fifth of six children born to Lee and Eva Pearl Renfrow. For someone who’s lived more than 100 years, Smith remembers a lot about her early childhood. She has particularly fond memories of playing with her sister at their home on 1st Avenue or Sunday afternoons when her mother would make Jell-O with black walnuts in it. She also recalls how young men from Grinnell College would frequent the Renfrow home on Sundays alongside other visitors looking to hang out at one of the few Black homes in the town.

“They would come, sing songs – not all of them, the ones that liked to sing. There were 10 of them,” recalled Smith.

The 10 she’s referring to are the 10 Black undergraduate students at Grinnell College, the ones given scholarships by Chicago Sears executive Julius Rosenwald. He dedicated millions of dollars to promoting Black education, and those students were Smith’s first example of what college students looked like. 


Up until that point, Smith lived a modest life with her parents and siblings. The granddaughter of enslaved people, she remembers her grandparents fondly.

“My grandfather came from Virginia. His father was a white owner. My grandmother was born in South Carolina. Her father was a Frenchman, and her mother was a slave, but she wasn’t all slave. They wouldn’t put a dark slave in the house. Both of them were part white, so consequently, you know they already mixed with whites. It made no difference. You could look white; you were slaves…My grandpa was in his 80s. My grandfather was George or Joseph (He went by both names). And my grandmother was Eliza Jane. She was named after her mother,” Smith said.

Her grandmother was sent to Iowa in a covered wagon after her mother, a mistress of the Frenchman, had her writ of freedom burned following his death. She sent her three young children to freedom from South Carolina to Ohio, but they never saw their mother again. 


Smith would grow up, hearing these stories, her mother emphasizing one major thing in mind, all the Renfrow children must go to college.

“I had to quit school and go to work. My children are getting what I longed for and missed: a thorough education,” Eva Pearl Renfrow told the NAACP magazine The Crisis in 1937.

That same year, Smith made history as the first Black woman to graduate from Renfrow college, earning a degree in psychology. After graduation, she headed to Chicago, earning a job with the YWCA making $75 a month. She would work for the University of Chicago and as a secretary to Oscar DePriest, the first Black alderman and first Black person to serve in Congress in a northern district. 


While DePriest was highly accomplished, Smith who is not favorer of persons, describing him plainly.

“He was an old man. He was old. His wife was an alcoholic. They were both old. We thought they were Methuselah,” she quipped. 

In Chicago, she met her husband Henry Smith, the two marrying in 1940 and raising two daughters, Virginia and Alice. Smith would go on to have a wonderful life, her family settling in Hyde Park and her children building a friendship with the Hancocks, whose son Herbie grew up to be a jazz legend. 


“Mrs. Smith lived across the street from us. She and my mother were the best of friends. Mrs. Smith deeply respected etiquette and manners; whenever I visited the Smith family, I knew I had to be on 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 dear friends of mine,” Herbie Hancock recalled.

The great musician also credits Smith with inspiring him to attend Grinnell College. When questioned about her associations and meetings with greats such as Herbie Hancock, Amelia Earhart, and Duke Ellington, Smith retorted, “They’re just people.”

In 2019, she received an honorary doctorate of humane letters from Grinnell.







As she celebrated her 107th birthday on July 14th, reflecting over a century of living, she recalled an important anecdote passed down by her mother that she held onto her whole life.


“One of the things my mother 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 told us every day: ‘Nobody’s better than you,'” Smith said.

We hope you had a blessed birthday Dr. Smith! Thank you for the wisdom!

Photo Courtesy of Anthony Vazquez/The Chicago Sun-Times/Edith Renfrow Smith family collection


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