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.