In the wake of last month’s shooting in Charleston, S.C., debate over Confederate symbols has resurfaced nationwide. The controversy, which ultimately motivated the removal of the rebel flag from outside the South Carolina state house, has also reignited a long-standing debate over the name of one of Yale’s 12 residential colleges.
Hundreds of undergraduates, graduate students and alumni are aiming to bring new attention to the name of Calhoun College, which honors John C. Calhoun, one of slavery’s most fervent advocates. Calhoun, who served as vice president under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson, was born and raised in South Carolina and is notorious for defending slavery as a “positive good” during a time when many other southern politicians viewed it as a necessary evil. Calhoun graduated from Yale in 1804.
Because Calhoun is considered one of the most prominent proponents of slavery in American history, students have voiced discomfort with the University’s decision to seemingly celebrate his legacy with the honor of an eponymous residential college. While their efforts have gained attention from the University, with a Calhoun Master’s Tea discussion of the debate planned for the fall, it remains unclear whether the name will be subject to serious reconsideration or merely passing conversation.
AN AGE-OLD DEBATE
Discussions of Calhoun College’s contentious name, and the debate over whether or not the administration should rename the college, are not new. But they have been revived with new vigor in light of a searing national debate over white supremacy and the symbols some see as continuing to propagate it in the wake of the shooting of nine black churchgoers in Charleston. The discussion has been reinvigorated by the decisions of corporations such as Amazon and Walmart to discontinue selling merchandise featuring Confederate symbols.
Graham White LAW ’16 is the co-author of a petition written by a group of Yale Law School students that calls for the name of the residential college to be changed. In the petition, the group acknowledges that there have been suggestions in the past to alter the college’s name to Calhoun-Bouchet College, in honor of Edward Bouchet, the first African American to attend Yale College.
“We were aware that there had been unsuccessful efforts to change the name of Calhoun College in the past, but we believe that the recent nationwide outrage toward public symbols of the Confederacy have finally given minority students and allies the momentum needed to compel Yale to make this change,” White said, referring to fairly frequent protests against the college’s name in recent decades, including one instance in 2009 when pranksters proposed renaming the college for black abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass.
However, the petition explicitly requests that the University erase Calhoun’s name from the residential college. According to the petition, Calhoun’s legacy is built on a “vociferous defense” of a state’s right to enslave blacks, and he championed the view that blacks were not equal, could never be equal and would always be subservient to whites. Students will never be comfortable in a residential college that commemorates this sort of individual, the petition says.
“Like the official display of the Confederate flag in South Carolina, Calhoun College represents an indifference to centuries of pain and suffering among the black population,” the petition said. “It conveys disrespect toward black perspectives, and serves a barrier toward racial inclusiveness. Calhoun College will always preclude minority students from feeling truly at home at Yale.”
According to White, these renewed efforts are more likely to hit a nerve. The rationale for retaining Calhoun’s name, he said, “have never been weaker.”
White said that although the petition was only drafted Sunday afternoon, it has already received strong interest from student groups throughout the University. The group released the petition Monday morning to collect individual signatures and received more than 100 signatures in less than two hours, White said. He added that the signatures were evenly dispersed among the undergraduate, graduate and alumni committees. As of Monday morning, it had garnered 1,405 signatures.
Though University Chief Communications Officer Elizabeth Stauderman ’83 LAW ’04 did not comment on the petition directly, she encouraged the student body to continue discussing important issues of racial justice.
“The University welcomes engagement and discussion on this important topic: the tragedy in Charleston, on top of countless preceding tragedies in our country’s history, has elevated public opinion and discourse on difficult subjects that have too long been avoided,” Stauderman wrote in a statement.
Though student interest in the issue has been prolific, the power of changing a college’s name ultimately rests with the Yale Corporation. Yale College Dean Jonathan Holloway said he “fully [expects]” the issue to arise as the Corporation will be selecting names for the two new residential colleges in the coming year.
Calhoun College Master Julia Adams said that she is glad to see a “robust campus discussion” developing, and that a Master’s Tea has been scheduled at Calhoun this coming September so that students across the University can canvass the issue. Adams will co-host the event with History professor David Blight and hopes to take a historical perspective to the debate.
Holloway, who is also former master of Calhoun, said he does not yet know whether the petition will encourage the administration to move one way or another on the issue. He added that as a historian, part of him remains committed to “enduring the burden” of Yale’s choice in the 1930s to name the college after Calhoun.
“I’m no fan of Calhoun, the individual, or his ideas, but I’m not a big fan of the other people for whom our colleges are named who owned slaves or who profited from the slave trade,” Holloway said. “My point here is that if we are to change the name of Calhoun, we had better be prepared to change many, many names on campus, perhaps even the name of the University itself.”
Holloway said he believes the smarter route is to engage in ongoing conversations about the forces and people who built this nation’s infrastructure and ideology, although these conversations can often be complicated. He added that his chief concern about renaming Calhoun is that people, or perhaps even Yale as an institution, may become disinclined to have further complicated conversations about these topics.
“Again, I’m no fan of Calhoun,” he said. “But I’m much less of a fan of an absolved U.S. history in which we are all exceptional and right-minded individuals.”
However, Holloway continued, from a civilian’s point of view, and not from the perspective of a historian, he does feel as if too many people refuse to acknowledge the basic civil and civic rights of African Americans and others. Renaming Calhoun College would be a “blunt instrument,” Holloway added, though this may be an “era of blunt instruments since so little else seems to get through our collective skulls.”
Many students interviewed also expressed torn feelings, emphasizing the need to find a balance between honoring history and making sure that all students on campus feel comfortable.
Though Esther Portyansky ’16 recognized that various historical figures, including other individuals who have eponymous residential colleges, supported slavery, she asserted that Calhoun was unique in his fervor for defending the institution. She added that she has heard many students describe their “discomfort, anger and resentment” at walking through the halls of Calhoun College.
“Whether John C. Calhoun’s values strike at us personally or not, having a residential college named in his honor is undeniably a sign that we do not find his values problematic,” she said. “The fact is, Yale did not find his values to be problematic in 1931, when the college was named. But today is not 1931. Our society’s values have changed, and we are fighting against forces that want to drag us back into the days when white supremacy was the unchallenged law of the land.”
Charlotte Brannon ’19 said she does not think the solution is to erase Calhoun’s name from the college, thereby ignoring an important part of America’s, and Yale’s, history. If anything, Brannon said, it is crucial to remember that part of history to prevent it from being repeated in any form.
Still, she added, the administration must do something to make current and future Yale students comfortable with what they are honoring. Though the petition supports the full-fledged removal of Calhoun’s name from Calhoun College, Brannon suggested adding a contemporary name alongside Calhoun’s — an idea that has been voiced in the past, and is even mentioned on the residential college’s website. Rather than honoring Calhoun as an individual person whose legacy is questionable in today’s world, Brannon said, the college’s name can depict him as part of a rich history filled with adversity and change.
Jasmine Benjamin ’17, an African-American student in Calhoun, said that as a history major, she sympathizes with the argument of leaving Calhoun’s name on the college in order to “preserve historical memory.” However, she said having a residential college named after Calhoun has not influenced students to talk constructively about the past.
“I’m all for being able to discuss uncomfortable things about the past,” Benjamin said. “But I don’t think having a college named after Calhoun is doing that. If anything, it’s making people treat the past comfortably. We’ve detached Calhoun’s name from everything that he stood for, so it loses significance.”
She added that when students want to show residential college spirit, they put on “Calhoun” shirts without thinking about the person whose name they are wearing and the legacy of racism and intolerance he left behind. The name is not encouraging people to have difficult, complex conversations about history, Benjamin said, and therefore should be changed. After all, she added, it is strange to have a college named after someone who “seems to stands for everything that Yale does not.”
According to White, changing the college name is just one step forward in a continuing battle to achieve racial equality and justice on campus. There is more work to be done, he added, much of which centers on diversifying the faculty and student body. Oftentimes, success in this area comes down to strategy and timing, he said.
“For Calhoun College, now is the time to push for a change that should have been made a long time ago,” White said.