Friday, March 11, 2011

University of Heidelberg Honors American Abolitionist and Former Slave

By establishing the James W.C. Pennington Distinguished Fellowship, the University of Heidelberg/Germany is drawing attention to a long forgotten historic occurrence that brought together German democratic revolutionary ideals, the international peace movement and the abolitionist movement in America. In 1849, James W. C. Pennington became the first African American to be awarded an honorary degree from a European University when the University of Heidelberg conferred on him the honorary doctorate of divinity. He had been invited to Heidelberg by the theologian and democratic activist Friedrich Wilhelm Carové after the two met at the 1849 World Peace Congress in Paris.

Pennington was born in 1807 as Jim Pembroke, a slave on an estate in western Maryland, and later worked as a blacksmith. He escaped bondage as a young man, fled north, was able to educate himself, and became the first African American to attend classes at Yale. He was eventually ordained as a Presbyterian minister. In 1849, he published The Fugitive Blacksmith, or Events in the History of James W. C. Pennington, an account of his harrowing escape. With his oratory and literary skill, Pennington became a leading voice for the abolitionist movement, representing its Evangelical Christian branch.

According to Dr. Mischa Honeck, Assistant Professor at the University of Heidelberg’s Center for American Studies, Pennington’s honorary degree from Heidelberg not only raised his prominence in the abolitionist movement in the US, but it also was seen as a positive tool for the foundering cause of German liberalism. More information can be found here.

1 comment:

Kathy, the Single-minded Offshoot said...

This is an amazing piece of history. Thank you for bringing me and everyone who reads your blog so many relatively unknown but extremely interesting pieces of Wisconsin history.