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A “True Grinnellian” featured in Smith Gallery

The+gallery+featured+photos+of+Mrs.+Smith%E2%80%99s+family%2C+her+high+school+years%2C+her+life+in+Grinnell+and+her+life+in+Chicago+where+she+now+resides.+Photo+by+Shabana+Gupta.+
The gallery featured photos of Mrs. Smith’s family, her high school years, her life in Grinnell and her life in Chicago where she now resides. Photo by Shabana Gupta.

Dr. Tamara Beauboeuf and Feven Getachew `24 spent the summer organizing the rededication of Smith Gallery to properly recognize its namesake and the first Black woman to graduate from Grinnell College, Mrs. Edith Renfrow Smith. Beauboeuf and Getachew wanted to reconcile the lacking recognition from the College to the pioneer, who is still alive at age 107.

Beauboeuf said, “The institution [Grinnell College] has neglected this woman for much of its history. Feven and I were trying to correct that a little bit. But I don’t think this should be the end of attempts to recognize her.”

Gretachew was in Beauboeuf’s tutorial last year, “Beyond the Little Mermaid.” Getachew reached out to Beauboeuf with the idea of doing something for Mrs. Smith when Getachew stayed on campus over the summer.

After researching and learning more about Mrs. Smith, Beauboeuf and Getachew got in contact with Professor Emeritus Dan Kaiser, history, who wrote the book “Grinnell Stories: African Americans of Early Grinnell,” which includes stories of Mrs. Smith. He connected them to her, Alice Frances Smith. Beauboeuf and Getachew traveled to Chicago in the summer of 2021 to meet Mrs. Smith, where she lives now.

“There are no good words. You know, the word remarkable is useful, but it doesn’t get to it,” said Beauboeuf about first meeting Mrs. Smith.

“I felt honored. I felt empowered, inspired, disappointed, disappointed that I didn’t know about her [Mrs. Smith] before I came,” said Getachew.

On Thursday, Oct. 28, there was a ceremony in the Smith Gallery attended by Mrs. Smith and her family to formally rededicate the space. The gallery was filled with photos discovered by Getachew during the summer spent researching with Beauboeuf.

A ceremony was held in the Smith Gallery to rededicate the space attended by Mrs. Smith (left), her family and students. Photo by Ariel Richards.

“My idea was to be able to make the exhibition as wholesome as possible and represent different points in her life at different times,” said Getachew, who chose the photos to highlight in the exhibit.

The exhibit ran from Thursday, Oct. 28, until Nov. 6. There were photos of Mrs. Smith’s family, her high school years, her life in Grinnell and her life in Chicago where she now resides.

During the event on Thursday, Beaubeouf opened the ceremony. Getachew spoke about designing the exhibit, meeting Mrs. Smith and why she embodies the idea of “A True Grinnellian,” referencing the title of the exhibit. President Anne Harris officially rededicated the space. Finally, Mrs. Smith spoke and expressed her gratitude, saying it was one of the most beautiful tributes she had ever received.

The rededication revealed a new plaque on the wall outside the gallery describing the life and legacy of Mrs. Smith, which replaced the former plaque that read “The Smith Gallery,” so future students can learn and understand who Mrs. Smith is and celebrate her life.

“The rededication was both of us working together to say, can we understand the namesake for the space because everyone refers to that gallery as the Smith Gallery and may assume all sorts of people, none of whom were Edith Renfrow Smith,” said Beauboeuf.

Mrs. Smith’s grandparents were born into enslavement. She was born to Eva Craig and Lee Renfrow in Grinnell. Mrs. Smith graduated from Grinnell College in 1937 with a major in psychology and a minor in economics. She was the only Black student at Grinnell during her four years on campus and no Black students attended the school for 10 years after she graduated.

Getachew described how Mrs. Smith’s time at Grinnell College as the only Black person on campus demonstrated her perseverance. “I can’t imagine graduating and being a pioneer, it takes a lot of labor. You know, it takes a lot of active choice to love a place that really is saying that they’re not fit for you,” said Getachew.

Beaubeouf and Getachew reported having no difficulty receiving approval for the exhibit. The Department of Humanities provided funding for the project, and the Art Department helped set up use of the gallery, which they operate.

Getachew found most of the pieces from Mrs. Smith’s family members, and from Grinnell’s Digital Archives. She also had help from Drake Community Library and Justin Hayward in finding and displaying the photographs.

Mrs. Smith also met with other parts of the community during her visit, such as the middle school, high school and community members in town.

“I felt really strongly that that needed to happen because she’s never had the opportunity to speak as one Grinnellian to another Grinnellian,” said Beauboeuf.

Beauboeuf said the failure of the college to recognize Mrs. Smith means there are other “firsts” we could be ignoring or missing history on. “What is the actual history of including Black students, Black and brown students, indigenous students, different international groups of students? I would hope our students start to get curious about and do research to find who they are.”

“Mrs. Smith is my hero,” said Getachew. “I believe she is an embodiment of the core values Grinnellians have in my opinion, and I aspire to be a Grinnellian like her.”

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