Edith Renfrow Smith

Edith Renfrow Smith ’37

Season 2 Episode 3

Edith Renfrow ’37 was born in Grinnell, Iowa, on July 14, 1914, the fifth of six children of Lee and Eva Renfrow, one of the only African American families in Grinnell at the time. But her story begins long before that. On her mother’s side, Edith’s grandfather, George Craig, was an escaped slave who later settled in Grinnell and worked as a barber. Like so many freed slaves and their children, the Renfrow family understood the power of education. From the outset, education was the priority in the household. They sent all their kids to college, and all the children worked to support each other’s education. Edith ended up being the only one to attend Grinnell College, and she graduated in 1937, the first African American woman to graduate from Grinnell, with a major in psychology and minor in economics and history.

Two pictures side by side of Edith as a toddler
Edith at 2 years old in Grinnell
Edith Renfrow Smith wearing her Camp Fire Girls necklace at age 16 or 17
Edith Renfrow Smith wearing her Camp Fire Girls necklace at age 16 or 17.

Read: Dan Kaiser's Blog About Race in Grinnell, the KKK in Grinnell

Watch: Edith Renfrow Smith Interview With Dan Kaiser at Drake Community Library

View: More Pictures of Edith and Her Family on Digital Grinnell

Growing up in Grinnell, Edith encountered prejudice in many forms, but the words of her mother guided her through these difficulties. Smith says of her mother, “She was tough. She taught us there's nobody born better than you. They may have more money, they may have more clothes, maybe they're more beautiful, or live in a better house. But remember, no one, not even the president of the United States, is better than you.” Edith remembers how the ice cream shop in town did not serve African Americans. Her brother, who worked there, would sneak out some ice cream at night for their mother. 

Renfrow home at 411 1st Ave
The Renfrow home at 411 1st Ave. in Grinnell

Smith employed that practical optimism as an antidote to challenges she faced throughout her life, and she has maintained that positivity into her second century of life. Rather than focus on the challenges she faced due to discrimination, she highlights the people in Grinnell who paid her special attention and helped her achieve success, from providing her employment to helping her pay for her graduation. 

Listen: Grinnell Magazine Interview With Edith Renfrow Smith

Read: Descendant of Slave Girl and French Master Gets Degree

Edith in 1937 while working at the YWCA in Chicago
Edith in 1937 while working at the YWCA in Chicago

After graduating, Edith worked for the YWCA, Univ. of Chicago, the state of Illinois, the city of Chicago, and then as a public schoolteacher in Chicago for over twenty years, and that’s where she resides now, where she has continued to volunteer for the Art Institute and Goodwill. Edith has remained active and sharp in her old age, and her remarkable longevity has garnered the interest of Northwestern University for their study of “superagers,” people over age 80 whose memories are as good – or better – than people 20 to 30 years younger. For her remarkable life of overcoming challenges and serving others, Edith received an honorary degree from the College at the 2019 Commencement ceremony.

Edith upon her graduation from Grinnell College in June 1937
Edith poses in cap and gown on the day of her graduation from Grinnell College in June 1937

Watch: Edith Renfrow Smith Awarded Honorary Degree

On campus, Edith’s legacy will outlive even her, as the Smith Gallery in the Joe Rosenfield ’25 Center, named in her honor, showcases student art exhibits. Additionally, the Edith Renfrow Smith Black Women’s Library was recently dedicated in her honor in the Black Cultural Center on campus. Rayyon Robinson ’19, with the help of others, including Stephanie Jones, assistant professor of education, started the library and named it in her honor, as a space to raise the voices of marginalized people. If you are interested in purchasing books for the library, you can read the library’s Amazon Wishlist for books.

As for Edith, as long as she’s around, she will have something to say, and she had some words of advice for the 2019 graduates, and anyone else willing to listen: “Do the best you can each and every day at every minute of it. Don’t forget you as an individual are important.”

We use cookies to enable essential services and functionality on our site, enhance your user experience, provide better service through personalized content, collect data on how visitors interact with our site, and enable advertising services.

To accept the use of cookies and continue on to the site, click "I Agree." For more information about our use of cookies and how to opt out, please refer to our website privacy policy.