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March 5th, 2010
05:54 PM ET

History made at an Iowa college during Black History Month

Raynard S. Kington, Grinnell College's new president / Courtesy Grinnell College.

Raynard S. Kington, Grinnell College's new president / Courtesy Grinnell College.

Dave Schechter
CNN Senior National Editor

Black History Month may be over but it is worth noting the history made during February at a small liberal arts college in Iowa.

During its 164 years, Grinnell College has developed a reputation for involvement in social justice issues, dating back to founders active in the movement to abolish slavery.

But knowledge of that history could not prepare Raynard S. Kington for the reception he received when introduced as the college's 13th president.

The reaction from hundreds of students, faculty and staff packed into Herrick Chapel on campus as Kington emerged from behind a college banner might be described as a rock star-in-the-making moment.

Kington was greeted with a prolonged standing ovation, loud cheers and not a small amount of surprise on the faces before him.

Grinnell’s previous presidents (only one a woman) all were white. Kington is African-American. And gay, with his partner the fathers of two young boys.

For the 6 percent of Grinnell's nearly 1,600 students who are African-American, Kington's appointment gives him automatic role model status.

Most recently the deputy director of the National Institutes of Health, Kington has been a leading researcher on the impact of social factors on health. His credits include M.D., M.B.A. and Ph.D. He entered the University of Michigan at 16, received his under-graduate degree at 19 and his medical degree at 21. His M.B.A. and Ph.D. are from The Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania.

Kington recognized the symmetry of a great-grandson of slaves taking the helm of Grinnell College. "On my wall I keep a framed original issue of the Liberator, William Lloyd Garrison's abolitionist newspaper, to remind me of the ultimate success of that incredible movement and to remind me of the possibility on days when I need reminding that the world can change, that change may require great courage and creativity, rigorous thinking, hard work and significant sacrifice, but it can occur – and I know that Grinnell has continued that tradition of social change to this day," he said.

How Kington fares as president of the college, whether he maintains rock star status, of course remains to be seen. College president is not an easy job, especially in the current economy, even at a school with an endowment estimated at more than $1 billion.

But on that day it was fascinating to be an alumnus, coincidentally on campus for a journalism conference, witnessing this piece of history.

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