Monday, July 12, 2021

‘Nobody’s better than you’

Edith Renfrow Smith

     On those long ago Sundays in Iowa, Edith Renfrow Smith’s mother Eva Pearl made Jell-O with black walnuts in it. Her older sister Helen would play the piano at their house on 1st Avenue, and the young men from Grinnell College would gather around. This was in the 1920s.
     “They would come, sing songs — not all of them, the ones that liked to sing,” said Smith, 106. “There were 10 of them.”
     Those details — the walnuts, that some guests sang, some didn’t, and exactly how many came nearly 100 years ago — are typical of the sharp, specific memories of Smith, who turns 107 on July 14.
     She recalls how these visitors were not just any Grinnell undergraduates, but the 10 Black students given scholarships by Julius Rosenwald, the Chicago Sears executive who donated millions of dollars to promote Black education.
     They frequented the Renfrow house on Sundays because it was one of the few Black homes in town, and their example inspired Smith to later attend Grinnell herself — Class of ’37, the first African American woman to graduate there. 
     That might sound impressive. But if one quality stands out when visiting Smith at her tidy apartment at the Bethany Retirement Community on North Ashland Avenue, it is that she is never overly impressed with herself or anybody else.
     “When my nephew heard that I had met Amelia Earhart, he had a fit,” she recalled. “I said, ‘She’s just like everybody else.’ She came to Grinnell. Everybody who was famous came to Grinnell.”
     Shaking Renfrow’s hand, it is impossible not to reflect that you are shaking hands with a woman whose grandparents were born in slavery. She remembers them, too.
     “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.”
     Edith Renfrow was born in 1914 in Grinnell, where her father Lee was a chef at the Monroe Hotel. Her earliest memories involve the end of World War I.

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  1. Beautiful. I can't wait to read the Wednesday column. This is as good as newspaper columns get.

    1. What he said! Thank you for sharing Edith's remarkable life as only you can.

  2. It's mind-boggling that there are still people alive today who have clear memories of the First World War. On the day my wife was born, this remarkable woman was turning 33. Thanks, Mr. S. I love stories like this.

    Can't imagine living to be 107. Only 33 years to go! It'll be here in the blink of an eye! Maybe the nurses will help me blow out the candles.


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