The first African American woman to graduate from Grinnell College, Edith Renfrow Smith was born in 1914 in Grinnell and left after graduating to live in Chicago. Smith is currently 101 years old. She spoke on Wednesday, Oct. 7 at Drake Community Library about living a century of life.
“If people reject you, don’t worry about them, they don’t matter,” Smith said.
At the event, she spoke about her experiences visiting Arbor Lake and running from cows with friends, painting a scene of Grinnell at the beginning of the 20th century.
Smith describes her past as one that was full of adaptation and understanding in the face of racism and adversity in Grinnell, but also describes her mother as someone who helped to harden her resolve in the face of adversity.
“They may be richer, they may be more beautiful, they may have more clothes, but you are unique,” Smith said, quoting her mother in response to questions about how she dealt with racially charged statements.
Smith described a love she has for Grinnell. Although she did not have a lot of money growing up, strong family ties and a loving mother made the experience something that she reflects upon very positively.
“People are people. Some are nice, and some are not. If they’re not nice, leave them alone,” Smith responded when asked about how she felt as one of the few African American women on campus.
This was a theme in many of Smith’s responses: universal acceptance of herself and strong will.
Smith married in 1940 in her Grinnell home.
“I can’t say we were poor … I never lived in an apartment, I always lived in a house, and we were never hungry, so consequently we had to be rich,” Smith said of life around the time of her wedding.
This positivity permeated a great portion of the interview.
When asked about her awareness of being the first African American woman, she says that it was not on the front of her mind when she was actually living in Grinnell.
“Some things are better, some things are worse and some things you don’t think about,” Smith said.
Smith made it a point to say, in relation to her old age, that there is no secret recipe or diet. What she has done, consistently, is remind herself of what mattered in life. There is no nutritional secret either, she says, but rather her family made do with what they had available which was a diet consisting of organic foods that her family planted and consumed, also using natural preservation tactics for the food.
“You have to decide your worth, the Lord made you perfect for you,” Smith advised.