A Great Grandson of Slaves Leads Grinnell College

Oct 10, 2014

Grinnell College President Dr. Raynard Kington leads one of the nation’s most selective, academically challenging institutions of higher learning. He uses his family’s oppressed past to introduce social justice issues to students.

On the walls of Kington’s cluttered office across the street from Grinnell’s campus hang old photographs of his ancestors. “To the right over here are my two great grandparents and their two siblings," he says. "And all four of these people were born as slaves, all four of them.”

There is another memento from America’s pre-Civil War days framed nearby, a copy of “The Liberator,” an abolitionist newspaper published by William Lloyd Garrison, one of the 19th century’s strongest voices against slavery. “I try to remind myself regularly that I am where I am because huge numbers of other people sacrificed," Kington says.

Grinnell’s first African-American president is beginning his fifth year as head of the prestigious school. He holds M.B.A., Ph.D. and medical degrees, and was deputy director of the National Institutes of Health before starting his tenure. His father was a doctor, his mother taught, and his grandparents were educators. He traces all of these professional accomplishments to an act of atonement from a slave master, a man who also happened to be Kington’s biological great-great-great grandfather. “At the end of slavery, he had fought with the Confederacy in Texas," Kington says. "At the end of the war he took one of his plantations and divided it up among his slaves.”

Kington says the slave master's attempt to pay the debt he owed his slaves gave Kington's relatives a leg up. It provided free title to land and helped shape the nucleus for a strong black community in the Deep South. “The school was run by African-Americans," Kington says. "Both my grandparents taught there, they had churches, my grandfather had a little store, and they had their own little world that protected them, I think in a lot of ways, from the brutality of segregation.”

Kington calls segregation the legal form of slavery that followed the War Between the States and says the country still suffers under its ill effects. He witnessed examples of it during his own childhood in Baltimore. His physician father served a primarily black clientele from a row-house office in an inner city neighborhood. “They lived where they lived in Baltimore because of segregation," Kington says. "And as a result they bought in areas where the property didn’t increase in value.”

But Kington’s highly motivated parents knew how to best break down color barriers. “What I heard over and over and over growing up was that education was the thing that allowed the family to go from slavery to middle class in one generation" he says. "The only reason I’m the president of a college is I really deeply believe that there are few better investments for a society in its future than higher education and knowledge.”

So this great grandson of slaves now leads a small liberal arts school that was founded by abolitionists. 

Kington established the Grinnell Prize in 2011 to recognize leaders younger than 40 in social justice causes. They were handed out this week to a California-based operation that redistributes unused medicine and a company that builds sanitary toilets in Kenya.