Calhoun College Revisited... and Renamed

Update: A year and a half ago I posted a piece titled “What’s in a Name?”, taking up several controversies of memorialization and history, including the brouhaha at Yale over whether to rename the residence hall known as Calhoun College. The dorm was named for Yale alumnus and U.S. Vice President John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, a white supremacist and staunch defender of slavery, which he once called “a positive good.” The problem was not only the residence hall’s name, but the existence in it of stained-glass window panels depicting slaves picking cotton, eating watermelon, and standing in shackles before Calhoun. Some of these images had already been removed; some remained. To remove them all and to change the dorm’s name, its faculty resident argued at the time, would be “to erase history” – and in the process, to “forgive ourselves” unjustly,” as one student put it.

I concluded my column with these questions:

Should we expunge Calhoun from public memory, as much as possible, along with the flag of the South that he revered? What about the slaveowning Thomas Jefferson? Or the “Indian Killer,” Andrew Jackson? How far to go with the cleansing of history? Is cleansing even the right metaphor?

At Yale the controversy kicked up again last summer, when a black dining services worker took a broomstick and smashed one of those stained-glass windows, expressing outrage at having to work in a building that included them. He was arrested, and the charges later dropped.

This past Sunday, the Hartford Courant reported that the Yale Board of Trustees (officially known as Yale Corporation) has voted to replace the name of the Calhoun College with that of Grace Hopper, a computer scientist and one of the first women to get a graduate degree from Yale, in 1930. President Peter Salovey asserted that eliminating the name “is the right thing to do,” adding that “Calhoun's principles and legacy as an ardent supporter of slavery... are at odds with the values of this university."

As recently as last Spring, Salovey saw the issue differently. In April he announced the decision to retain Calhoun's name, arguing in a letter to the Yale community that erasing Calhoun's name from the residential college risked "masking" the past, "downplaying the lasting effects of slavery, and substituting a false and misleading narrative.” At the time Salovey said retaining the name "forces us to learn anew and confront one of the most disturbing aspects of Yale's and our nation's past."

A number of Yale students and professors continue to hold to that position. After last week’s decision, a statement from the Yale Women's Center called the decision to erase the name of a white supremacist “an act of whitewashing.” And the co-founder of the Yale Black Alumni Network, Pennsylvania state representative Chris Rabb, called the move “underwhelming,” saying that it does nothing to promote "vision, accountability or reconciliation," and that fails to be "reparative." “This has nothing to do with the legacy of slavery that Calhoun promoted or that Yale was complicit in,” Rabb says.

How do you view this kind of action? Long time coming? Misguided? Necessary but not sufficient? My own sense is that, for what it’s worth, it’s the correct move. I’m guessing that Yale will find the right way and place to draw attention to the fact that Hopper College was once Calhoun College. Maybe a plaque in the foyer or below the remaining stained glass window. But as a matter of everyday institutional use, names that honor historically significant racists should go. There’s a difference between keeping a name present via a concerted act of historical attention -- one that places that name in context and invites passersby to reflect on its meaning -- and keeping it present as the unexamined default name of a domicile, the name that everyone simply and unthinkingly uses as a point of daily reference. As I wrote before, there aren’t any Himmler Parks in Germany, nor would anyone want there to be; but there are plenty of places across the country to read about what Himmler and his ilk did – and, in the process, to catch echoes of the still groaning ghosts of those who suffered and died. There is a proper and necessary kind of revisionism, that does not whitewash, but rather draws attention to how a society has departed from the benighted values of the past, while keeping those values in sight for recollection, inquiry and discussion. This is called education.   

Anyway, to round out this Calhoun College update, here is a remarkable essay by Tobias Holden, a current Yale senior and African-American from South Carolina who, in the middle of the Calhoun College controversy, discovered that he is the great-great-great-great-great-grandson of Calhoun.

And on a related topic, an article in the Times profiles a courageous undergraduate at the University of Mississippi, Allen Coon, a white student who for the past two years has helped lead the movement to get rid of the Confederate flag on campus and to agitate for the interests of black students. For these efforts he has earned himself a world of insult from his fellow white students. The article is really worth a read. It reminds us just what the ingredients of courage are: instinctive sympathy for the underdog; stubborn adherence to principle; habitual indignation; clarity of vision; a willingness to be ostracized; and the irrepressible impulse to pick a fight where a fight needs to be picked. Bravo to him.

Rand Richards Cooper is a contributing editor to Commonweal

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