First Black Woman to Graduate from Yale Divinity School Enshrined with Portrait in School’s Most Prominent Hall of Memory

by Xara Aziz
Voiced by Amazon Polly

The first Black woman to earn a Doctor of Theology from Harvard and the first female professor to receive tenure at Howard Divinity School has been enshrined by being honored with a portrait gallery at Yale Divinity’s School’s Common Room, the school’s most prominent hall of memory.

Rev. Dr. Rena Joyce Weller Karefa-Smart ’45 B.D. was awarded the Lux et Veritas Award, one of Yale Divinity School’s most prestigious alumni awards, just six years before the most recent honor. She also made history by becoming the first Black woman to graduate from the school.

Dr. Karefa-Smart’s history is long, varied and prestigious, including being the founder of the ecumenical World Council of Churches in 1948. In the 1960s, she played a pivotal role in the liberation of Sierra Leone and other African countries. 

“The inspiration you’ve stirred for generations of African American women at Yale Divinity School and beyond is incalculable,” the Lux et Veritas citation declared.

At the time she was presented the award, she said of the honor, “It gives me a second life, to think back … and know that I have not been forgotten.”

Dr. Karefa-Smart died in 2019 at the age of 97, but her accomplishments will continue to ring true for generations to come. Along with her two daughters and granddaughter, her painting was officially added to the collection of other influential figures in Yale’s history.

Dr. Karefa-Smart was born in Connecticut in 1921 and proved her tenacity in a country plagued by racism and misogyny by entering college at the age of 15. She would go on to be awarded a bachelor’s degree in education from Teachers College of Connecticut and a master’s degree in religious education from Drew Theological Seminary in New Jersey before joining the ranks of Yale and Harvard.

But even with her exceptional academic achievements, she was target of  “institutional racial discrimination” at Yale, according to The New York Times, which reported that “because she was black, she was not allowed to live on campus and had to stay in a boardinghouse, which made it harder for her to feel a sense of belonging.”

Nonetheless, she would soar to new heights, by studying with some of Yale Divinity School’s most prolific faculty members at Yale Divinity School, including H. Richard Niebuhr and Liston Pope, both of whom “helped deepen her ecumenical passion and ethical themes,” according to editor Ray Waddle.

“Because of transfer credits from Drew and Howard, she was able to complete her YDS work in a year,” Waddle wrote in his tribute to Dr. Karefa-Smart. “[By then] post-war social forces were gathering—independence movements in Africa, a civil rights movement in the U.S., a surging ecumenism in denominational circles—that pulled her into far-ranging Christian activism. Before Martin Luther King Jr. and James Cone and Katie Cannon, she would be a theological witness on the world stage when mentors for women of color were rare.”

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