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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”