Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Evanel, the academic...

Evanel Elizabeth was the fourth of the Renfrow children and the last to be born in Minnesota. Like others in the family, Evanel had her eyes on a college education, but, more than that, once she obtained the bachelor's degree like her sister Helen, she continued on to gain a master's. She then spent the rest of her career teaching at African American universities across the South, culminating in a 27-year tenure at Savannah State University. A recognized expert on nutrition, Evanel regularly attended professional conferences and published scholarly papers in her field, in this way perhaps extending furthest her mother's encouragement to her children to pursue an education.
Evanel Renfrow, 1926 Grinnellian
As mentioned in an earlier post, Evanel was born in Red Wing's City Hospital in 1908, the fourth child born to Lee and Eva Renfrow. As such, she followed in the wake of her brothers and sisters as they wound their way through the Grinnell schools after the family moved back to Grinnell around 1910.  Like her older siblings, Evanel spent her first years at the old South School, but with the completion of Davis School in 1917, she continued her education there, following close on the heels of her brother Rudolph. And Evanel did quite well in school. She had Vesta Atkinson as her sixth-grade teacher at Davis, where, according to extant records, she achieved a 91 overall average; the next year Evanel moved on to Center, the old downtown school that was soon to be replaced by a new Junior High School.  At Center her first-semester seventh-grade teacher was Olive Bowling, who found Evanel's work good enough that in November 1920 she "especially promoted" Evanel ahead of schedule to 7A, confirmation of the intelligence and hard work Evanel brought to schoolwork.

To judge from the high school yearbook summary of her activities, Evanel's scholastic achievement did not come at the cost of extra-curriculars. Like her oldest sister, Helen, Evanel was active in YWCA, but, in addition, she participated in numerous sports: basketball for three years, soccer for one, tennis for one, and something called "gym exhibition" (presumably a kind of gymnastics) all four years. She was also active in "Declam," a kind of public speaking activity, and did very well, once reaching the semi-finals of the annual competition. To imagine a personality of someone known only through historical evidence is hazardous, but the record indicates that Evanel did not shrink from encountering or even competing against white classmates. The saying attributed to her in her senior yearbook—"I want what I want when I want it"—seems to confirm her confident approach to life.

In an earlier post I noted that around 1925 the Renfrow family confronted a difficult situation: Helen was two years into her education at Fisk University; Alice had graduated from high school but had not started college; Rudolph, the third-oldest of the children, was enrolled in the academy of the Hampton Institute; and of course Evanel was about to graduate from Grinnell High School. It appears that, in order to balance these various demands on the family budget, the Renfrows arranged for Alice and Helen to mark time so that Evanel could begin college immediately after high school. Records confirm that autumn 1926 Evanel began a program in home economics at what was then called Iowa State College of Agricultural and Mechanical Arts (today's Iowa State University). Whether finances (oldest sister Helen began at Iowa in the 1927-28 academic year) or some other issue was to blame, Evanel evidently interrupted her study in Ames after the first year, and only in the 1929-30 academic year did she resume her education at the University of Iowa from which she received a B. S. in 1930 and where she continued in graduate study, receiving an M. S. in 1935.
Home Economics Club, 1936 University of Iowa Hawkeye, p. 138.
As sister Helen's efforts to assist African Americans in Iowa City proves, the University of Iowa remained a very white institution. The 1936 yearbook picture of the university's Home Economics Club shows Evanel in the center of the photograph, the only African American of the 37 women pictured in the club. Being the lone black was nothing new to the Renfrow children, of course, who had grown accustomed to the situation during their Grinnell school years, but minority status did nothing to dissuade Evanel from pursuing her own educational goals.

Evanel's master's thesis ("The adequacy and cost of dormitory diets in the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical College for colored students") indicates that at some point before 1935 Evanel was living in Tallahassee where presumably she collected the data for her thesis. But I have so far not been able to confirm any position she might have held at Florida A & M.

By 1939 Evanel had won appointment at Alabama's Tuskegee Institute where the 1939-40 catalog lists her as Head, Department of Foods and Nutrition. In addition to citing her degrees from the University of Iowa, the catalog also reports that she had received a "Graduate Dietician's Diploma" from the Freedmen's Hospital in Washington, D. C. To judge from a much later article about Evanel, at Freedmen's she was part of a special student dieticians training course founded by Frances McShann in the 1920s. Consequently, by the time she arrived at Tuskegee, she had completed some of the best training then available in dietetics and nutrition studies. 
Freedmen's Hospital, Washington, D. C. (ca. 1910)
It is no surprise, then, that at Tuskegee Evanel had the best resume of anyone in the Home Economics/Dietetics School: only Susie Elliott, who was then the school's director, and Henry Partridge, an instructor in commercial dietetics then on leave, had master's degrees like Renfrow; the rest had either bachelor's degrees or diplomas from specialized schools. Put another way, Evanel's education prepared her to exercise leadership, helping to explain her having won a General Education Board Fellowship to study at the University of Chicago for the 1941-42 academic year.

After Tuskegee and her Chicago fellowship her name disappears from the records for a time. She next appears in 1945 in the catalog of Lincoln University in Jefferson City, Missouri, another of the country's historically black universities. A September, 1945 article in the university newspaper, The Lincoln Clarion, noted that "Miss Evanel Renfrow, assistant professor of foods and nutrition," would be joining the faculty. In addition to listing her degrees from Iowa, and her service at Freedmen's hospital, Tuskegee Institute, and Florida A & M, the newspaper also credited her with stays at "Michigan State College, University of Chicago, and the Loop Center YWCA, Chicago." I was able to find nothing about what positions she might have held at Michigan State and the Chicago Y, but these posts might well account for the three years between her fellowship at Chicago and her arrival at Lincoln in 1945.
Lincoln Institute (University), ca. 1920
Evanel seems to have made a smooth adjustment to life at Lincoln. Already in October, 1945 The Lincoln Clarion announced that she had become a member of the O. M. E. Civic Club as well as the Lundi Soir Bridge Club; subsequent announcements proved that Evanel was a rather good bridge player, since not infrequently she won the club prize at regular meetings. At Lincoln she was also sponsor of the local chapter (Epsilon nu) of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority.  But soon Evanel's influence was felt in the university curriculum, as in 1947 she took to the annual convention of the American Dietetical Association (since 2012 the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics) in Philadelphia a "proposal to establish an institutional training course for dieticians on Lincoln University's campus." Other notices confirm that Evanel was a well-known member of the dietetics profession, and held important office in the Missouri Dietetic Association as well as in the national professional organization.

The successful years at Lincoln led her to Savannah State College (today's Savannah State University), where in 1949 she was appointed associate professor and Director of the Division of Home Economics. Over the course of the next twenty-seven years Evanel led a very busy and productive life of teaching and scholarship. The periodic Faculty Research Edition of the Savannah State College Bulletin published several of her articles, including the following:
-"Pilot Study on a Non-Credit Adult Education Program in Chatham County" (1958)
-"A Review of Pertinent Literature on the Nutritional Status of the Negro Child, 1919-1954" (1963)
-"Changes in Social Welfare of Caribbean Families" (1961).
Prof. Evanel Terrell (far right) in class (photo courtesy Asa H. Gordon Library Special Collections, Savannah State University)
This last title grew out of a special summer, 1960 Family Life course that "toured and made a survey of contemporary family patterns of selected Caribbean countries." Evanel led a group of some half-dozen African American teachers who spent a month visiting Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, Dominican Republic, Haiti, and Jamaica to explore domestic life and home economics in these Caribbean societies. In each place the group received a specialist briefing and visited sites related to the tour's theme.

Throughout her many years at Savannah State, Evanel continued to provide expert consultations and speak before various professional groups.  Soon after she arrived in Savannah, for example, she traveled to Tallahassee to advise the Foods and Nutrition Workshop at Florida A & M where she had done some of her original research. Later, as an "FDA school lunch specialist for Negro schools" she was consultant to a three-week conference sponsored by the Florida Department of Education and Florida A &M University "for in-service teacher training of Negro home economics teachers." She performed similar short-term consultations throughout her years at Savannah State.

In 1976, fifty years after her graduation from Grinnell High School, Evanel retired from her post at Savannah State University. Apparently she remained active in her church, First Congregational of Savannah, where she had been a long-time member, deaconess, and former president of the women's fellowship.
1976 Tiger, yearbook of Savannah State University
 Other activities (no doubt including bridge club!) continued to keep her busy, but the available records do not have much to say about her private life. All that is certain is that sometime in late 1951 or early 1952 Evanel married Carl Calvin Terrell (1918-84). I could find no record of the marriage, but a January, 1952 photograph in the Pittsburgh Courier shows a group of Savannah State couples, all of whom were being congratulated on their recent move into wedlock. Evanel Renfrow Terrell stands alone in this photograph, without her husband, although she, too, was included in the congratulations, and, as her changed family name indicates, must have married recently.
Pittsburgh Courier, January 26, 1952.
Carl Terrell was born in 1918 in Cocoa Beach, Florida, and had earlier served in the US Army, enlisting the day after the 1944 D-Day landings. According to city directories from the second half of the 1950s, Carl at that time was working as an embalmer for Bynes-Royall Funeral home in Savannah. I know little else about him, except that after his 1986 death he was buried at Beaufort National Cemetery.

Gravestones for Carl and Evanel Terrell, Beaufort National Cemetery, Beaufort, SC
At some point after Carl's death, Evanel moved to Chicago, where she endured a long illness at the Methodist Nursing home (today's Wesley Place Rehab, 1415 W. Foster) before her February 22, 1994 death. Her body was returned to Georgia for the funeral at Bynes-Royall Funeral Home, and was then buried next to her husband in the Beaufort National Cemetery in Beaufort, South Carolina. Her obituary emphasized Evanel's academic success, including membership and leadership roles in numerous regional and national dietetics associations. The obituary also pointed out that Evanel was a lifetime member of Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, the service-oriented African American sorority in which Evanel had some years earlier celebrated Golden Soror status—fifty years of membership.  She had served as sponsor for local chapters at both Lincoln University and Savannah State, and the Savannah chapter, Gamma Sigma Omega, established an annual scholarship in Evanel's name.

So this particular story, most of which was played out far from the Renfrow family home in Grinnell, came to an end. But all these years Evanel had enjoyed and depended upon her family's encouragement and wisdom. Not only had she pursued and succeeded at formal education, but also, far from the garden her mother had tended on First Avenue in Grinnell, Evanel Renfrow Terrell multiplied and shared her mother's interest in nutrition and good eating. Through numerous consultations, publications, and years of teaching Evanel had helped create a healthier generation of African Americans.  And, through the scholarship that carries her name, Evanel Renfrow Terrell, like her sister Helen, continues to influence young people for the better.


  1. Thanks Dan. Another wonderful story of a special person.

  2. Aunt Nellie was Godmother to my sister, Sybille Long.