At 108, Edith Renfrow Smith can still recall memories from her childhood in Grinnell, Iowa, as if they happened yesterday. While some of those memories have blurred over time, what’s clear are the people in them, like her grandfather, who persevered through some of life’s greatest obstacles.
“My grandfather was a runaway slave,” said Renfrow Smith, who lives in Chicago.
Renfrow Smith, a retired elementary school teacher, said much of her life journey was motivated by those in her family who grew up in the struggle of poverty and racism. Throughout her life, she broke barriers in white spaces, becoming the first Black woman to graduate from Grinnell College in 1937. Last December, the liberal arts school honored Renfrow Smith by naming one of its buildings Renfrow Hall, a residence hall set to open in fall 2024. Since attending the college over 80 years ago, she said that she’s witnessed the college change, and that she is “so glad” to have a building named in her honor.
“It’s nice to honor people before they’re dead and in the cemetery,” Renfrow Smith quipped.
Born just before World War I in 1914, Renfrow Smith along with her five siblings were one of the few Black families living in Grinnell, which had a population of 5,362 in 1920, according to Iowa’s State Data Center. Her mother, Eva Renfrow, worked as a laundress to support their family while her father, Lee Renfrow, worked as a cook. Renfrow Smith said making money wasn’t easy because the work wasn’t always steady. “He was doing any little job that he could find to make a dime,” she said of her father.
But some of Renfrow Smith’s earliest memories begin at age 3 with her grandfather George Craig. At age 14, her grandfather, who was one of 10 children, ran away from a plantation in Missouri. After hiding in Kansas through the Underground Railroad for one year, he eventually headed north and settled in Grinnell around 1900, and he later made a living as a barber.
Renfrow Smith’s grandmother, who was also born into slavery, was the child of a plantation owner in South Carolina who had three children with a house slave. Renfrow Smith said hearing the oral history of her grandparents from her mother intrigued her.
“I was always asking mama questions, and mama was always telling these stories about grandpa and grandma,” Renfrow Smith said.
Aside from being an important part of Renfrow Smith’s childhood, Craig, who lived on the block behind Renfrow Smith’s house, also interacted with an individual who was an important part of Grinnell College’s history, according to Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant, the Louise R. Noun Chair in gender, women’s and sexuality studies at Grinnell College. This person was John Brown, a white abolitionist who fought against the institution of slavery in Bleeding Kansas and who made at least one visit to Grinnell in February of 1859. According to Beauboeuf-Lafontant, Craig was one of the escaped slaves Brown harbored through the Underground Railroad while Brown was venturing to Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.
“We’re almost 100% sure that he was with John Brown when John Brown came through Grinnell in February of 1859,” Beauboeuf-Lafontant said.
Renfrow Smith’s family was also the first Black family to own property in the county, Beauboeuf-Lafontant added, including her great-uncle who owned 300 acres by the end of the 19th century. All the information the university acquired about Renfrow Smith’s family was given orally by Renfrow Smith, as well as court records and census documents.
Beauboeuf-Lafontant also said that Renfrow Smith’s family history makes her think about other Black families who have passed down their history to each generation.
Renfrow Smith’s mother not only told stories of Renfrow Smith’s grandparents, but she also taught her daughter to pursue her dreams. Renfrow Smith’s mother, “who was a very determined person,” encouraged all her children to get an education, never letting them miss a day of school, Renfrow Smith said. “We never knew what it was to just play. We had work to do.”
Renfrow Smith’s mother also instilled confidence within her children, making sure they understood that despite their status, they were not beneath anyone.
“She was tough. She taught us there’s nobody born better than you,” Renfrow Smith recalled. “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.”
This life lesson from her mother is core not only to Renfrow Smith but to her entire family, Beauboeuf-Lafontant said, and is captured in the belief that they have inherent value. Interwoven in Renfrow Smith’s and her siblings’ upbringings, this belief reflected her mother’s aspiration to send all six of her children to college. As the descendant of a runaway slave, Renfrow Smith also represented people “who’ve always wanted more for themselves,” Beauboeuf-Lafontant said, and her mother’s mantra represents a narrative that her family has always run away from things that tried to make them lesser.
After graduating from Grinnell High School in 1932, Renfrow Smith worked her way through college and lived at home since her mother was unable to financially support her tuition. Because she was so busy working and attending classes, Renfrow Smith said she “really didn’t have time for anything.” Racism appeared in the classroom when “a few faculty members didn’t give her the grade that she believed she deserved,” Beauboeuf-Lafontant said. While Renfrow Smith was very much focused on her work and studies, it was proof of the challenges Black students faced because of their skin color.
“If you’re the low man on the totem pole, you get stepped on, don’t you?” she said. “When you’re Black, you’re invisible — and that’s what we were.”
After graduating from Grinnell College with a bachelor’s degree in psychology in 1937, “there was no jobs available,” she said, which prompted her to move to Chicago and find work as a secretary for the YWCA. She also worked at the University of Chicago and later became a public school teacher in 1954, where she taught sixth grade students in the Chicago public school district for more than 20 years before retiring in 1976. Chicago was not only the birthplace of her career: The city was also where Renfrow Smith met and married her husband, Henry Smith, and had two daughters.
Renfrow Smith’s siblings went on to their own success, including her older sister Helen Renfrow Lemme, who was an educator and civil rights leader and is honored in Grinnell High School’s Hall of Fame with her sister. An elementary school in Iowa City, Iowa, is named after Lemme.
Over her life, Renfrow Smith has many notable achievements, including an honorary degree she received at Grinnell College’s 2019 commencement. She also participated in Northwestern University’s “SuperAging” study, which analyzes older individuals’ cognitive abilities. But one of the most valuable treasures she gives to the world is her story, Beauboeuf-Lafontant said, which makes people “stand taller.” By seeing her graduate from a majority-white school in the 1930s, she helped pave a way for other Black students who wanted a college education.
“She was the only Black person on campus for four years,” Beauboeuf-Lafontant said. “But the numbers of us who are here now, it’s because of doors that she opened by daring to say, ‘I will become a student at Grinnell College.’” Now, students of color make up 26% of Grinnell’s 1,500 students.
Renfrow Smith, who turns 109 this year, said her goal is to “do the best I can” and “take care of myself as much as I can.” As Renfrow Smith reflects on her life, she acknowledges the Black people who came before her and helped her become the person she is today.
“We didn’t get where we are by ourselves,” Renfrow Smith said. “We had the help of all of those who came before us.”
CORRECTION: (February 8, 2023, 4:01 p.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated when George Craig settled in Iowa. He passed through Grinnell, Iowa, in 1859 with John Brown, but settled in Iowa in 1864, buying property there around 1900. The article also misstated that Black students were not allowed to live in Grinnell College’s campus housing. Black male students who attended Grinnell before Renfrow Smith were allowed to reside on campus.