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Life through the eyes of Edith Renfrow Smith

“Have respect for yourself,” says a Chicagoan whose grandparents were born in slavery, but found a way to free herself from the grind of time. She turns 107 on Wednesday.

Edith Renfrow Smith poses at her home at Bethany Retirement Community in Ravenswood. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Edith Renfrow Smith poses at her home at Bethany Retirement Community in Ravenswood. | Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times
Anthony Vazquez, Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

“There is no message!” objected Edith Renfrow Smith when I suggested that readers will expect her to share wisdom gleaned over her long life — she turns 107 on Wednesday. “People worked hard! And didn’t let the kids run the street. They always kept their children busy doing something, and they were always looking to the future.”

I’d call that wisdom aplenty.

On Monday, Sun-Times readers were introduced to Smith and learned about her extraordinary life: how her grandparents were born into slavery, how she became the first Black graduate of Grinnell College and came to Chicago to work in 1937. Though we never even got to the bulk of her career, from 1954 to 1976, as a Chicago Public Schools teacher.

That’s how I met her; thanks to a CPS colleague and reader, Gregory Lopatka.

“I was just out of college when Beethoven school opened,” said Lopatka, 81. “I was a 22-year-old. She was 47, a master teacher.”

For years, he’d phone her. Recently, Lopatka decided to visit and asked if I wanted to come along. I went, knowing absolutely nothing of the marvelous person who awaited me. Just the opposite: expecting every cliche of old age that I’d be embarrassed to articulate here. Imagine my surprise.

Lopatka told the story of Muhammad Ali coming to their school.

“He was telling the kids, ‘Black is beautiful,’” Lopatka remembered. “Before that, you’d never say somebody was ‘Black.’ ... ‘Black’ was an insult. I would break up a fight and ask the kids, ‘What are you fighting for?’ and one would say, ‘He said my mother was Black.’”

One moment in a whirl of history Smith has seen. Yet she seems a person who seemingly glided untouched through a century of struggle. She doesn’t present herself as someone who had to overcome anything but rather as someone blessed.

“She doesn’t see herself as a victim,” said Tamara Beauboeuf-Lafontant, chair of gender and women’s studies at Grinnell, who visited Smith shortly after I did. She summarizes Smith’s perspective as, “Why would you let trash into your mind?”

“It’s a rejection of the poison you know exists,” said Beauboeuf-Lafontant. “It’s not going to block you.”

Indeed, what I found most noteworthy about Smith — descendant of slaves, first Black Grinnell graduate, someone who encountered famous people — sidesteps how she views herself, as a member of a large, loving family whose names and history she happily catalogues, someone involved with the world to the utmost. After Smith retired from CPS 45 years ago, she kept busy, volunteering at Goodwill and The Art Institute of Chicago until she was 98. She celebrated her 100th birthday by buying herself a car. And no dull vehicle, either: a fiery red Fiat 500.

She bakes (banana and peanut butter bread sound especially enticing), makes fruit wine and preserves. I can testify that her raspberry jelly is delicious. She has a kind word for everyone and is indignant when they don’t offer one in return.

“One of the secrets — you have to have respect for yourself,” she allowed. “Don’t let anyone disrespect you. Listen to what people say to each other: ‘Thank you.’ ‘Please.’ Every morning, I go in that dining room, and I know all the people who live here, and everyone gets spoken to. When I come in the door, I’d say, ‘Good morning, Mr. Lewis. Good morning, Gail.’”

Edith Renfrow Smith, photographed in June 2021 at her Ravenswood retirement home.
Edith Renfrow Smith at her Ravenswood retirement home. “Every morning I go in that dining room and I know all the people who live here, and every one gets spoken to,” she said. “When I come in the door I’d say, ‘Good morning, Mr. Lewis. Good morning, Gail.’”
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Such social niceties are not just good manners; they may help Smith stay sharp, at least according to a 2017 Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine study of “SuperAgers” that Smith participated in. It found relationships are important if you hope to carry mental agility into old age.

Smith knows who she is; others are scrambling to catch up. Smith celebrated Grinnell College long before Grinnell College came to celebrate her. But that’s changing at the school.

“There are institutional gaps in its self-understanding,” Beauboeuf-Lafontant said with exquisite tact. “Pretty glaring. We are trying to remedy one of them.”

A library and a gallery on campus are named for Smith, and students learn about her upon arrival.

“People recognize her as a pioneer,” said Beauboeuf-Lafontant. “Particularly Black students.”

“Edith Renfrow Smith is very inspiring,” said Feven Adane Getachew, 20, a Grinnell freshman from Ethiopia. “We have the support of each other. She made it through without resources we have already. “

In 2019, Edith Renfrow Smith received an honorary degree from Grinnell College; in 1937, she became the first Black woman to graduate from the Iowa school. At left is Michael Latham, who was then then dean of the college.
In 2019, Edith Renfrow Smith received an honorary degree from Grinnell College; in 1937, she became the first Black woman to graduate from the Iowa school. At left is Michael Latham, who was then then dean of the college.
Justin Hayworth/Grinnell College

External resources, perhaps. With her family, and the way she connects to each person she meets, it’s impossible to think of Edith Renfrow Smith as ever being without resources.

“Life has been wonderful,” she told the Class of 2019 after Grinnell gave her an honorary doctorate, and the assembled graduating class stood and applauded. “Remember, take every opportunity to do your best.”

Speaking of which. When I contacted jazz great Herbie Hancock, who has known Smith all his life, he had this message for her, which I am happy to pass along.

“I’m so proud to have known you during my formative years,” he wrote. “I am deeply grateful for your friendship and wish you the very happiest of birthdays.”

I’m proud to know you too, and we only met last month. Happy birthday, Mrs. Smith. Thank you for the raspberry jelly.

Edith Renfrow Smith recounts her and her family’s history at her home in Ravenswood, Friday, June 18, 2021.
Edith Renfrow Smith, retired CPS teacher, at her Ravenswood retirement home. Smith, the first Black woman to graduate from Grinnell College, now has a library and a gallery at the Iowa school named after her.
Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times