"Life has been wonderful."
She graduated in 1937 with a major in psychology and a minor in economics. She was the first African American woman to graduate from Grinnell College, in Grinnell, Iowa. Who was this woman? She is Dr. Edith Renfrow Smith, born in Grinnell, Iowa on July 14, 1914. She is the fifth of six children and the granddaughter of slaves. “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, Eliza Jane, went by covered wagon to Iowa. Eliza Jane’s mother had the papers she carried declaring her freedom burned after her master died. She wanted her three young children to be free, safe and get an education, so she sent them to Iowa, to freedom. They were never reunited again. She was raised by Quakers in Ohio and later Illinois.
Edith grew up understanding the value of education. After she graduated from college she went to Chicago and found a job with the WMCA, earning $75 a month. Later she worked at the University of Chicago.
In Chicago she met Henry T. Smith and they were wed on May 25, 1940. They had two daughters. Edith earned her teachers license and worked in the Chicago school system for 21 years. She retired in 1976 and volunteered regularly at the Goodwill and the Art Institute of Chicago, continuing to do both until well into her nineties.
At 94 years young, in 2009, Edith was inducted into the Chicago Senior Citizen Hall of Fame and received the Luminary Award for her many years of community service. She was remarkably vital and had a crystal clear memory at 99, she was selected to be a part of a “Superager” study conducted by Northwestern University. To qualify, a person had to be “age 80 or older with memory performance equal to or even better than healthy people in their 50s and 60’s.” To qualify an individual must pass a rigorous set of memory tests, one so touch that less than 10 percent of those considered could pass. Edith passed with flying colors and appeared on the Today show as a part of the “Superager” study.
At the age of 104, in 2019, Edith was awarded an honorary doctoral degree from Grinnell College. The Edith Renfrow Smith Black Women’s Library was opened at the college Black Cultural Center. In 2006 she was honored by the school with the naming of the Smith Gallery at the Campus Center.
“Life has been wonderful,” she told the Class of 2019 after Grinnell gave her an honorary doctorate, and the assembled graduating class stood and applauded. “Remember, take every opportunity to do your best.”