In September 1933, James Rowland Angell, then Yale’s president, welcomed freshmen to a college markedly different from the one prior classes had known: a college sorted into seven residential quadrangles.
“It is your duty to see that Yale turns back to the common weal such men and such a wealth of human values that her stability and integrity cannot be challenged,” he told the class, whose members would apply to join a college after their freshman year. “It’s a great thing to belong to an institution with the traditions and ideals that Yale maintains.”
Eighty-two years later, the colleges, now 12 in number and set to expand to 14, are among the University’s most cherished traditions.
But Yale, and those of us fortunate enough to count ourselves members of this community, will be judged not merely by the longevity of our traditions. We must answer for their moral content. For this reason, we must change the name of Calhoun College, which honors John C. Calhoun, among the fiercest advocates of slavery known to this country. To do so is not to obliterate history but to inscribe different values into Yale’s present and to aspire to a better, more racially just future. The larger question, of course, is how the University, and the students it trains, can move beyond symbolism and challenge racism in a more direct and abiding way. Nothing about answering that question requires preserving Calhoun’s name.
Much has changed in this country, and at Yale, since 1933. President Angell was addressing an all-male and overwhelmingly, if not exclusively, white audience. The men and women of the class of 2019, however, hail from 60 countries; nearly 10 percent is black. This is the sort of class demographically suited for a conversation about “Yale’s complicated and occasionally painful associations with the past,” as President Peter Salovey put it in his freshman address, beginning a campus-wide dialogue about the way Yale’s history is interwoven with the history of chattel slavery. In 2015, we are wise to the many aspects of our University that recall slavery, including our namesake, Elihu Yale, a British merchant who profited from the slave trade. More than half of the colleges are named for men who owned slaves or defended slavery.
At the same time, some things haven’t changed.
In 1933, 28 people were lynched in the United States, most of them black. In June of this year, a white man who exalted Confederate symbols and confessed to wanting to start a race war killed nine black churchgoers in South Carolina. The attack spurred an anguished national debate over the rebel flag, which was ultimately removed from capitol grounds in Columbia, S.C. At Yale, the attack reignited a debate over Calhoun College, named for the 1804 graduate of Yale College.
Calhoun was a political theorist and a politician from South Carolina. He was a congressman, senator, secretary of war, secretary of state and vice president (under John Quincy Adams and then Andrew Jackson). American chattel slavery found no greater exponent than Calhoun, who famously defended the buying and selling of human beings not as a necessary evil, as some of his contemporaries contended, but as a “positive good.”
Calhoun claimed to see slavery “in its true light,” but his doctrine of white supremacy is a perversion of Yale’s commitment to “light and truth.” It is anathema to every value we cherish. And it is alarming that Yale’s leaders chose to honor this person by naming a college for him almost 70 years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery.
Renaming the college wouldn’t right that wrong. It wouldn’t exculpate Yale and its benefactors of the guilt of profiting from slavery. And it certainly wouldn’t purge the University of all disquieting relics. But here we must draw a line. The prominence and fervor with which Calhoun defended slavery make him ineligible for this public honor. A public dissociation from his legacy is an important gesture that is worthy of an intellectual community.
One might ask: Why now? And why judge the past by today’s standards?
We look to the past when we find present means of undoing injustice wanting. Large segments of American society are growing more, not less, segregated, including the pipelines to Yale: the nation’s high schools. Recent analysis has found that black students are suspended and expelled at rates overwhelmingly higher than those of their white peers. A similar disparity holds among adult men when it comes to rates of incarceration.
“There is a recognition that American racism was founded in slavery, and a general, if inchoate, understanding that any attempt to address race in the present must also address slavery in the past,” wrote the American historian Ira Berlin in 2001.
One might ask: But what about tradition? What about memories tied to Calhoun College, tarnished by a change in its name?
This argument has little purchase. Where were the proponents of preserving Calhoun when Commons, a full three decades older and a hub of student life, was renamed for a private equity magnate, Stephen Schwarzman ’69, who gave $150 million for its renovation? Tradition is sacrosanct, except when financial interests are involved. Then it’s all a bit more malleable.
Further, memories of Calhoun are of time spent in the college, the people within its walls, not its namesake.
Finally, there is the argument that changing the name is an attempt to efface history. Some say it is better to live with painful symbols, to let them be open wounds that sting and force us to ask questions of our past, rather than absolve ourselves of it. This is a view Dean Jonathan Holloway, a scholar of African American Studies, has espoused, and it’s one Salovey seemed to favor, even though he did not take a position, in his freshman address.
Stripping Calhoun of the honor of having a residential college named for him, repudiating the ideas he championed, doesn’t erase his name from our history books or wipe it from our lips. He should and will still be discussed in history courses, perhaps even in Holloway’s own lecture this fall.
Further, by being deliberate in how we rename the college, we can ensure Calhoun’s legacy continues to challenge and engage us. Specifically, we suggest his name be removed in favor of one of Yale’s early black graduates, to highlight the moral contest over slavery and freedom that defines our country’s history.
There are a wealth of options. There is Richard Henry Green, who in 1857 became the first black person to graduate from Yale College. There is Edward Bouchet, who in 1876 earned a doctorate in physics from Yale, becoming the first black person to receive a Ph.D. at an American university. There is William Pickens, who earned a B.A. in Classics at Yale in 1904 and went on to work for the NAACP and the U.S. Treasury Department. There is Jane Matilda Bolin, who in 1932 became the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School.
Future generations of students will be told that they belong to a college that used to go by a different name, but that sometimes Yale’s traditions and its ideals — the defining features of the University, as President Angell saw it — are in conflict. It’s not our duty to ensure that Yale goes unchallenged, but to understand when stability becomes a threat to integrity.