Until the mid 1990s, the image of a black man eating watermelon — a common derogatory caricature from the early 20th century — was part of the design of the stained-glass windows overlooking Sterling Memorial Library’s staff lounge for more than six decades.
But the way the man was depicted drew complaints from multiple employees roughly 15 years ago, prompting the University’s human resources department to demand that the library remove the glass, said John Vincenti, the manager of library building operations and security.
“Once somebody knew that some one found it offensive, it was removed,” said Judy Schiff, chief research archivist of the University Library.
The image of the black man, which Schiff said is derived from the 1916 book “Penrod and Sam” by Pulitzer Prize winner Booth Tarkington, has since been replaced by a new pane depicting a book, a scale, a pediment and columns, and the original pane is now stored in the University Objects Collection, Vincenti said.
The stained-glass window in Sterling is one of several racially themed windows still scattered around campus whose designs are remnants of the early 20th century and were incorporated into the Yale’s architecture when many University buildings were built.
In the Branford College master’s house, for example, a window shows a black man with wide lips and servant’s clothing, balancing a turkey on his head. Another window in the Calhoun College dining hall shows two black women picking cotton.
The continued presence of these images underscores Yale’s ongoing tension between historical preservation and racial sensitivity, and different administrators have responded in different ways, with some deciding to remove the potentially offensive glass and others deciding to leave it.
Calhoun College Master Jonathan Holloway GRD ’95, who decided to leave the questionable pane in his college’s dining hall, said he is uneasy with the idea of simply erasing history.
“The historian in me says we whitewash too many things in our society,” said Holloway, a professor of history, African American studies and American studies.
When the East Asian Library was renovated in 2006, the staff uncovered a stained glass window depicting a Chinese man caricatured with a queue ponytail reminiscent of the era of Manchu control in China. The image, based on an illustration in the late 19th century narrative poem “Heathen Chinee,” had previously been concealed behind a bookcase, said Gay Walker, a former Yale librarian who has written multiple books on the history of Yale’s stained glass.
“They didn’t want to destroy art, but they wanted to place it in a less conspicuous location,” Walker said.
Ironically, though the room containing the “Heathen Chinee” image originally housed Yale’s collection of American literature, it became the East Asian Library during the library’s reorganization toward the end of the 20th century. Ellen Hammond, the library’s curator, said staff members have met multiple times with faculty members to discuss whether or not to remove the image entirely. Their consensus has been to keep the image as a record of American attitudes toward Asians earlier in the 20th century, she said.
“The image of ‘Chineseness’ presented in the stained glass is uncomfortable for us,” Hammond said in an e-mail. But, she added, “it seems fitting somehow that the image is now in a part of the library that celebrates East Asian cultures.”
G. Owen Bonawit, the artist who designed the glass in Sterling Memorial Library, also designed stained glass panels in many of Yale’s residential colleges, Walker said.
While she said she thinks Bonawit also designed Branford’s stained glass, she said she is most knowledgeable about the glass in Sterling and is unaware of the caricature of the black servant carrying a turkey. She said in a later e-mail that the college has several small designs intended at the time to be “humorous.”
Branford College Master Steven Smith declined to comment for this article.
With an even more troubled history related to race, Calhoun College — named after the 1804 Yale College graduate and 19th-century statesman who supported the states’ rights movement and slavery — contains visual reminders of this part of American history in its windows. The themes among the windows, which Walker said were designed by artist Nicola d’Ascenza in the 1930s, long went unnoticed by many.
Prior to the college’s renovation in the 2008-’09 academic year, the entire college had its windows replaced in the summers of 2005 and 2006, said Holloway, the college’s master.
Before the renovation, Plexiglas covering the windows obscured the content of the images, including the depiction of two black women picking cotton. Holloway himself said he was not aware of the image until a News reporter approached him in the fall of 2006 for an article about the history of slavery at Yale. He said he does not feel a need to remove the image simply because of his personal objections to it.
“I’m not thrilled by it,” Holloway said of the image. “But there’s a lot of art that I’m not thrilled by.”
Calhoun resident Eleanor Hayes-Larson ’11 echoed Holloway’s sentiment, noting that Yale’s ties to slavery are offensive but historically accurate. To remove the stained glass, she said, would be to “forgive ourselves” unjustly.
In fact, several other works of art in Calhoun have raised questions related to race.
Nearby, in Calhoun’s common room, is a stained glass image of John C. Calhoun, his knee now covered by pieces of colored glass. This position in the stained glass was once occupied by depictions of Calhoun’s slaves, Holloway said.
Holloway said he has heard two versions of what happened to the window but does not know what actually happened. In one story, the depiction of the slaves in the window was smashed during the height of the black power movement and was replaced with colored glass. In the other story, the part of the image containing the slaves was removed by administrators and put in storage, where it was either lost or broken.
During the college’s 2005-’06 window renovations, Holloway opted not to have the image removed in order to preserve the mystery of how the window’s damage occurred, he said.
“I did not want to erase history,” Holloway said.