On those long ago Sunday afternoons 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.
“The only thing I remember is the song, ‘Over There,’” she said. That, and a neighbor who lost both legs in the war. And the parades she wouldn’t watch.
“The cemetery was past our house; they buried a number of the soldiers in the cemetery,” she said. “I always hid in the closet because I was afraid of the trombone.”
Around that time, she pulled a prank on her grandfather.
“My grandpa was in his 80s,” she said. “My grandfather was George or Joseph.” Not that she is uncertain; he went by both names.
“And my grandmother was Eliza Jane,” she continued, giving a musical lilt to the name of a woman who had come to Iowa in a covered wagon. “She was named after her mother” — an enslaved woman made mistress to that Frenchman, a planter in South Carolina. A woman who saw her writ of freedom burned before her eyes after her owner’s death. But not before she managed to send their three young children to live in freedom with Quakers in Ohio. She never saw them again.
The prank was at Halloween and involved her younger brother Paul — Smith is the fifth of six children — rattling a wooden spool on a piece of string against her grandparents’ bedroom window.
“We put a spool on a piece of cord, like you tied up packages in. My grandfather was older. He was in his bedroom, and my brother and I sneaked up, and pulled the spool right down the window. It made a racket.”
Smith went to college, majoring in psychology. All six Renfrow children went to college. It was expected.
“I had to quit school and go to work,” her mother told the NAACP magazine The Crisis in 1937. “My children are getting what I longed for and missed: a thorough education.”
Smith was the only Black student at Grinnell of either gender during the four years she attended. After graduation, she went to Chicago looking for work.
“They sent 12 students from Grinnell to see about getting a job,” she said. “In ’37, there were no jobs. Every one of us got a job, I got a job at the YWCA, which was at 4559 South Park; $75 a month. It was a good place, I took dictation from Professor Thurmond.”
She later worked for the University of Chicago and as a secretary to Oscar DePriest. If you expect reverence for DePriest, Chicago’s first Black alderman and first African American to serve in Congress from a district north of the Mason-Dixon line, guess again.
“He was an old man,” she said, pressed for details. “He was old. His wife was an alcoholic. They were both old. We thought they were Methuselah.”
Age was not a concern with her husband, Henry Smith.
“I was a year older than he,” she said, laughing. “I robbed the cradle. He was a milkman for the Borden Milk Company.”
They married in 1940 and had two daughters, Virginia and Alice.
The family settled in Hyde Park and became friends with the Hancocks. Wayman Hancock was a meat inspector, and his sons played with her daughter Virginia.
“Those kids were in and out of our house,” she recalled. “She used to live at Mrs. Hancock’s house because Mrs. Hancock had plums, and she loved plums. Herb and my oldest daughter were babies together. They were just big enough to look out the window. He became a musician when he went to Hyde Park High School.”
“Mrs. Smith lived across the street from us,” remembered Herbie Hancock, the jazz great. “She and my mother were the best of friends. Mrs. Smith deeply respected etiquette and manners, whenever I visited the Smith family, I knew I had to be on my best behavior. Our whole family had a deep respect and love for the Smith family and of course including their two daughters Virginia and Alice, who were dear friends of mine.”
Alice Frances Smith remembers Hancock teaching her to play “Chopsticks” on the piano. And her mother had an impact on the musician’s life.
“He went to Grinnell because I went to Grinnell,” Edith Renfrow Smith said.
“She was the first person to suggest Grinnell College to me,” Hancock agreed.
Not that Smith puts on airs over the association — she mentioned Hancock two hours into our conversation. She also met Duke Ellington.
“They’re just people,” said Smith. While she did once venture to Mister Kelly’s on Rush Street to hear Hancock play, that didn’t mean she let her daughters hang around nightclubs.
“I was one of those kids kept in the house,” said Alice Smith. “We lived on 45th Street. All my friends went down to see the revues. I never went to any of these things, never went to Motown revues. My mother made sure I was never roaming the streets.”
She wasn’t allowed to go to the Bud Billiken Parade either; I thought I detected a trace of resentment.
“I don’t care,” said Alice Smith. “It was good. It kept me out of trouble.
Not that there was much money for shows.
“Back then, all of us were as poor as Job’s turkey,” said Edith Renfrow Smith, using a phrase popular 150 years ago.
Her sister Helen became a civil rights advocate, but Smith was never involved in the struggle. It just wasn’t her business. Not that she didn’t notice how her light-skinned husband could rent a motel room that would suddenly become unavailable when the clerk saw her, far darker, waiting in the car. Or how the salesgirls at Marshall Field’s refused to wait on her. It simply did not matter.
“I don’t want to go there anyway,” she said defiantly. “They don’t have anything I want. One of the things my mother taught me, ‘There is no one better than you.’ I don’t care if it’s the president of the United States. I don’t care if they have more clothes. I don’t care if they’re prettier. She told us every day: ‘Nobody’s better than you.’”
“If somebody gave her a slight, she didn’t notice,” Alice Smith elaborated. “It just didn’t bother her.”
If you meet someone as extraordinary as Edith Renfrow Smith, you simply do not edit for space. So I hope readers will forgive me if I carry her story over to Wednesday. And rest assured, I have not gotten to the surprising part yet, and I don’t mean the part where Muhammad Ali shows up.
As incredible as Smith’s life was in the 20th century, the 21st held something truly unexpected, particularly for a woman in her second century. Having been educated by Grinnell College in the 1930s, she returned the favor and began to teach her alma mater a thing or two.
“She became relevant, visible to the campus,” said Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant, the Louise R. Noun Chair in Gender, Women’s and Sexuality Studies at Grinnell. “Her name was in the air.”
Coming Wednesday: “In the Air.”