Fugitive slave, James Pennington became the first African American to study at Yale. The university did not permit Pennington, a blacksmith by trade who had settled in New Haven, to matriculate or earn a degree. However, Pennington was allowed to audit classes at the Divinity School from 1834 to 1839, and his studies enabled him to be ordained.
Cornelius VanRensselaer Creed – Class of 1857
Cornelius VanRensselaer Creed was born in New Haven in 1835 and entered Medical School as the first African American to be enrolled at Yale in the 1850’s. After graduating from medical school in 1857, Cornelius Creed developed a large practice in New Haven and served as assistant surgeon of the Thirteenth Connecticut Vol-unteers in the Civil War.
Mary Goodman, an African American New Haven tradeswoman, provided the first gift to the university by a person of color. In 1871 Goodman bequeathed all of her property — $5,000 — to establish a scholarship fund for African American students of divinity. To honor her generosity, the Corporation voted that Mrs. Goodman be given a place in the Yale Lot in the Grove Street Cemetery.
Edward Alexander Bouchet – Class of 1874 and 1876
In 1870, Edward Alexander Bouchet became the first black person to enroll in Yale College. Bouchet, also the son of a Yale employee, was the valedictorian of the Hopkins School in New Haven. He was the first African American in the country elected to Phi Beta Kappa and ranked sixth in his class. Bouchet went on to the Yale Graduate School to study experimental physics, calculus, chemistry, and mineralogy. When he received his doctorate in physics in 1876, he became the first African American to earn a PhD from an American university.
Edwin Archer Randolph – Class of 1880
Edwin Archer Randolph was the first African American to graduate from the Law School. That July, he became the first black person admitted to the Connecticut bar.
Otelia Cromwell – Class of 1926
Otelia Cromwell became the first African American woman to receive a Yale PhD. (She was the first African American to graduate from Smith College, in 1900, and every year since 1989, Smith College has celebrated Otelia Cromwell Day in her honor.) Cromwell took her doctorate in English, and her thesis, “Thomas Heywood: A Study of Elizabethan Drama of Everyday Life,” was published by Yale University Press in 1928. Among her many scholarly works was one of the first anthologies of African American authors.
Jane Bolin – Class of 1931
Jane Bolin became the first African American woman who graduated from the Law School. A mere eight years later, Bolin, at the age of 31, became the first African American woman appointed to a judgeship; New York City mayor Fiorello La Guardia named her to the Domestic Relations Court.
Excerpted from “Old Yale: Pioneers,” by Judith Ann Schiff, Yale Alumni Magazine, January/February 2006.