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.

  • theantiyale

    This is using the Academy as a disinfectant .
    Erasing titles is a trifle concession to injustice. Cassius Clay becomes Muhammed Ali . Prince becomes The Performer Formerly Known as Prince. Dartmouth does away with the Native American symbol. Pontiac is banished from General Motors while soccer moms and dads merrily drive kids to concussion contests in Jeep Cherokee’s.
    All the while Skull and Bones is being sued by the descendants of Geronimo who allege that the grandfather and father of two presidents, (W and GHW) Prescott Bush (later U.S. Senator from Connecticut) stole Geronimo’s skull as a prank for the elitist Yale secret society.
    Yalies come and go speaking of Michaelangelo .
    The real issue is REPARATIONS.
    We owe 12 million slaves their very lives which we stole under the guise of “ownership” for 150 years. To say nothing of the rape and murder which white owners permitted if not occasioned. Ever heard the word miscegenation?
    At a week-long seminar on slavery at Amherst College more than a dozen summers ago, I proposed that as REPARATIONS all health care and education costs be free for African Americans for 150 years up to 12 million citizens: A second NRA—– National Reparations Association — could keep track.
    The proposal was brushed off as a pipe dream.
    Paul Keane
    M. Div. ’80

    • td2016

      “The proposal was brushed off as a pipe dream.”

      Well, thank goodness for that. Actually, it wasn’t just a pipe dream. It was a nasty, creepy, racist proposal of the worst kind.

    • Guy

      I agree.

      Let’s pay reparations to anyone who is a slave now, or was one. Not to their descendants, mind you, but to the (former) slaves themselves.

      And the funds should come from anyone who was a slaveholder. Not from their descendants, or the millions and millions of people who arrived in the US long after slavery ended, but from the slaveholders themselves.

      That kind of arithmetic I can live with.

  • BR16

    Kudos to the YDN for taking principled and likely unpopular stands on two very important issues. In general I have been very impressed with how this editorial board has driven discussion about important issues in a way that has not been heavy-handed or preachy.

  • Y80

    Sheesh. Political correctness run amok…. Does this make you feel good? Does it negate your guilt for your “white privilege”? Even if the name is changed, why must it be re-named for a black person? Unless it is a black person who gave great service to Yale? I’m sure there were many.

    Reparations? Give me a break. As if the country can afford that.

    While we’re at it, why not change the name of the University? As has been pointed out, Elihu Yale at the very least supported the slave trade and profited from the exploitation of India. (Or do we only care about African-Americans, not Indians?) See what your degree will be worth if that name is changed. I doubt any black student would want that.

    • Ethan Hill

      I suggested Schmoke is fit name for Calhoun in letter to the administration. Research Kurt Schmoke’s student and professional careers. Then support Schmoke College.

      • Guy

        Are you kidding? What are you schomking?? (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)

  • td2016

    There may be a case for renaming Calhoun College, but it’s not made in this editorial. The decision whether to rename Calhoun properly requires surveying the reasons the college was named for him in the first place and his merits generally and then weighing them against his deficiencies. That necessary survey and counter weighing have not been done or even attempted here, beyond the superficial listing of some of the high offices he held. There is not even mention of the fact that many important concepts and arguments respecting the need to protect and secure minority rights in a democracy that are now intrinsic to modern civil rights theory go back to Calhoun. Did the author here write in ignorance of Calhoun’s contribution or just deliberately omit it? In other words: Was this editorial written by a charlatan or a fool?

    There is not space here to outline Calhoun’s broader merits. But to see how misleading and shallow this YDN editorial really is one need only note (as others already have in their YDN comments, but the YDN itself dishonestly ignores) that John Kennedy plainly stated that Calhoun was one of the five greatest US Senators ever. It should be obvious that Kennedy was not of that opinion because Calhoun held some high offices and endorsed slavery. Calhoun might justifiably ask as Ronald Reagan famously did: “where’s the rest if me?”

    The reasoning in this editorial is generally as shallow and cynical as it is ahistorical and ignorant, in the latter case despite its pretenses (pretentiousness is a more appropriate term) to the contrary. The gratuitous and offensive reference to the generous Stephen Schwarzman is illustrative of the wrong-headedness and ignorance on display here, especially because the author of this editorial seems unaware that Yale specifically refused to name one of the new residential colleges after Mr Schwarzman despite his offer to donate much of the cost of its construction … exactly because this university has sacrosanct traditions regarding the naming of its residential colleges that cannot be abrogated even when a donor offers to drop OVER ONE HUNDRED MILLION DOLLARS into the kitty. Yet the scribe of this editorial insinuates exactly the opposite. By the way, Mr Schwarzman donated the funds that would have gone to Yale to the New York Public Library (the 42d Street Branch now quite fittingly bears his name), and Yale had no reason to think it would receive another donation of such a scale from Mr. Schwarzman. That he is funding the refashioning of Commons is a tribute to his extraordinary character and generosity. That the YDN drags his name into this matter of renaming Calhoun is odious.

    The deficiencies and overwhelming wanton ignorance in this editorial are far more than space allows me to describe. What an embarrassment!

    • ldffly

      Yes, the efforts at removing the name Calhoun have all evinced astounding lack of study. This debate so far has reflected none of the learning that one would expect from Yale students and that one would demand from Yale alumni.

  • Prg234

    In 1793, President Washington signed the Fugitive Slave Act. He was also a slave owner and practiced all the worse excesses of slavery at his tidewater plantation. Of course slavery was (and is) a great evil. Hence, we should proclaim to erase Washington’s name from all public monuments, place names, etc.. This suggestions does not get made in a serious manner because Washington was also many other things and there is a clear realization that at least some of his other traits and actions led to positive outcomes for our nation.

    Yale, has every right to decide to remove the name of John C. Calhoun from one of its storied residential colleges, but before you do so I would encourage you to examine the contributions of one of your greatest alumni. Calhoun was not only a key proponent of slavery, but also a brilliant student of history and politics, and arguably one of the most effective legislators in our nation’s history. Among other accomplishments was his ardent defense of State’s rights and (counter intuitively) his defense of the rights of the minority – issues that are still at the center of our body politic. While I strongly disagree with Calhoun’s views on slavery – paternalistic and bizarre by today’s standards – I understand the decision to honor him as one of Yale’s most influential historical figures.

    I wish you much luck in identifying prominent historical figures related to Yale that do not posses characteristics that would make them unsuitable for praise by current standards. George W. Bush College anyone?

  • Mike Harrington

    The YDN article would make one think that John Caldwell Calhoun lives today, what with language such as “[s]tripping Calhoun of the honor of having a residential college named for him.” Calhoun has been in his grave for more than a century and a half now, so nothing that his alma mater can do will affect him. Furthermore, judging Calhoun in the context of today’s moral precepts is equally bogus. It commits the sin of historical analysis sometimes called “presentism.” Lincoln said things that, by today’s standards, would label him a racist. Does anybody really believe that, were he alive today, Calhoun would espouse the same views about slavery? Evidently, the answer is “yes,” at least within the editorial office of the YDN.
    C. Michael Harrington, TD’69

  • JCvPnew

    I am for renaming Calhoun College. But the related concern is about Morse College. Samuel F B Morse was a more virulent racist than Calhoun ever was.

  • je64

    As a statesman and political philosopher, John C. Calhoun was one of the towering figures of the first half on the 19th century. A man of unquestioned intellect and personal integrity, he served as congressman, senator, secretary of war, secretary of state and vice-president. Alas, he was also a product of his section and class, and as such he was an enthusiastic supporter of slavery. Would we prefer that his character did not bear this stain? Of course. But is he so morally inferior to those who verbally questioned slavery while accepting its benefits? Is he so morally inferior to Lincoln, who espoused white superiority, who advocated deporting ex-slaves to a Caribbean island after they were freed, and whose proclamation freeing them was in large part politically motivated and by its terms did not apply in the only slave states over which the federal government then had jurisdiction? Is he so morally inferior to Woodrow Wilson, whose racial attitudes likewise reflected his origin and whose administration solidified racial segregation in the armed forces? Should the name of any institution bearing the name of Washington, Jefferson, Madison, Lincoln or Wilson be allowed to stand? With all due respect to the YDN’s editors, history is rarely so neat. Renaming Calhoun College will accomplish nothing of substance for anyone. Despite his obvious faults, many institutions would be honored to claim John C. Calhoun as an alumnus. If this proposal is seriously considered by the administration, one hopes that cooler and wiser heads will prevail.

  • Guy

    Clearly you need to rename Calhoun College after a more reputable alumnus, one unstained by any crime against people or classes.

    How about Bill and Hillary Clinton College?

  • Charles Bennett

    If we start renaming everything named for somebody with dirty laundry, we’ll have to do a lot of renaming.

    Also, the claim the Dylan Roof did what he did because Calhoun College is named as such doesn’t ring true IMO.

    I say keep Calhoun College with its current name.

    • PheroNike

      What needs to be changed in my humble opinion is hearts of all people who are still hurting from the past so deeply that they got stuck and counterproductive. The question anyone must ask is how to really be PROGRESSIVE ?

      Of course slavery was a terrible mistake, but as humans we make mistakes all the time…. It is a part of being a human… question is how to move on greater things gracefully or we will forever blame others for our own misery…

      Grace is not tearing up the past, but creating NEW future on mistakes that we made …I’ts disturbing to hear of unimaginable slavery / racial evil, but does anyone who plays racial card knows they are disrespecting the most traumatic event in the history of the United States were countless lives were lost to end the slavery…?! Please don’t be rude to countless victims while playing any kind of hate /racial or misogynistic card, b/c it is plane ignorant.

      Does anyone teach college youngsters that FREEDOM is NOT FREE ? Do they know it is NOT_PROGRESSIVE to look back instead finding new roads and see what is working for the future today? Please wake up America, did you see Paris attack? What about 9-11 ?

      There is so much bigger wolf waiting to bite our neck as real danger is penetrating to our country and I am afraid is already hidden in the walls of our The White House . So please everybody pray as only God can help US now.

  • grant_cook

    Why don’t you just argue to change the name of the university, if Elihu Yale was a slave trader. or is that too hard to stomach?