Catherine Yang

I am an alumna of Yale College and a descendant of slaveholders.

In our society, the first part of that sentence is a cause for celebration, and the latter a cause for silence. But both statements are true, and they are intertwined. By enslaving other human beings, my ancestors amassed wealth that, in turn, financed education. On my mother’s side, at least one person has attended Yale in each generation since the founding of the College.

It was probably because they understood the value and power of education that my ancestors — if they were like most slaveholders, and I have no reason to believe otherwise — denied even the most basic education to their slaves. Elvira. Jack. Milley. Rose. Tom. Dorcas. Judith. Chloe. Mitchell. Sam. Sambo. Gabriel. Sarah. Linda. Paul. Squire. Moll. Patt. And maybe others. For all of the Yale diplomas in my family, not a single one bore these names. Not a single one gave credit where it was, at least partially, due.

The last proceeds of my family’s slave ownership were spent long ago. But my ancestors left me a different kind of inheritance. I grew up in a family of highly educated people. I received the gift of belonging, of walking onto the Yale campus and knowing that it really was built for people like me. These gifts added to the gifts common to nearly all white Americans and denied to nearly all black Americans descended from slaves: the gift of knowing one’s history and origins; of seeing one’s culture, morality and physical appearance favorably portrayed; of getting the benefit of the doubt, even when acting stupidly or illegally; and of deciding when to think about race, or deciding that we’d rather not.

These gifts were useful at Yale, particularly at times when the campus and the coursework seemed daunting. Looking back, I feel fortunate that everyone in power — from my residential college leadership, to my professors, to the administration — seemed genuinely committed to my success. For me, Yale was a community.

Yale was not the same type of community for many of my black peers, who faced all of the same challenges that I did, and many more I did not. While they may have had their supporters, black students faced a daily battle against an institution and a student body that was subtly or overtly hostile to their presence on campus. At orientation, there was the Pierson welcome dinner my friends later called the “plantation dinner”: we mostly white students were served by all black, bowtie-clad servers. On Old Campus at night, there were gates that were held open as I approached, but hurriedly shut in the faces of black students who “didn’t look like they went to Yale.” There were questions about why “all the black students” sit together in Commons (uttered by white students sitting together in Commons). There were MLK-day “ghetto” parties at white fraternities. There were professors who did not look like black students, who mispronounced their names or confused them with other black students they did not resemble. There were people they were meant to call “Master,” and rooms known, not long ago, as the “Slave Quarters.” There was a college named after John C. Calhoun. That was not the only thing — for some people, it was not even the worst thing. But there was that, too.

Renaming Calhoun College will not change the discriminatory nature of the American education system. Renaming the college will do little for black people whose potential contributions to American society have been underestimated, written off and precluded. These people were never seen as students, much less students bound for Yale. But for black students who do make it to Yale — the ones who survive this system and thrive in spite of the obstacles it presents — renaming Calhoun may make the Yale environment slightly more welcoming. This step would not be the end of our work. It would not be sufficient. But it would be a reasonably good place to start.

Those who oppose renaming the college argue that we should not hold Calhoun to anachronistic moral standards. We should not negate his less controversial accomplishments. We should not “erase” history in a misguided attempt to avoid uncomfortable conversations.

Here is my proposal: If we must keep Calhoun’s name on the college, then let’s also honor the contributions of the human beings he enslaved. Let’s cover the walls with their names. Let’s write them large. Let’s chisel them into the stone.

In his Freshman Address this year, Dean Holloway urged students to recognize the people — “coaches, professors, administrators, custodians” — whose “sacrifices have brought [them] here.” Why do any less for the people whose lives, and whose children’s lives, were stolen and torn apart so that Calhoun could succeed? That is not erasing history — it is telling it more completely.

Maura Fitzgerald is a 2008 graduate of Pierson College. Contact her at maura.fitzgerald@gmail.com .

  • germ_16

    Most of the article is fine, white guilt aside, and it seems to tell a tale of the author’s anecdotal experiences in the past in regards to racism and Yale, which can be interesting to compare to now. The author mentions in passing the “discriminatory nature of the American education system” as if the system is still the same as it was in the past, though. It’s not the same, sorry. I think honoring the names of the slaves is fine, how that’s done is up for debate. Some would argue that using the names given by their masters would be offensive, so would it be possible to find their real names? I suspect that might be difficult to do.

  • Jawaralal_Schwartz

    Nice piece.

  • 100wattlightbulb

    Well I’m NOT a descendent of a slaveholder, I feel no white guilt whatsoever. Yale is a tough place to navigate for EVERYONE, with the exception of a few people like yourself, so quit trying to impose your guilt on the rest of us. You really want to get rid of the “chains that continue to enslave”? Get rid of “affirmative action” in all its forms and if that means the entire campus is heavy with one type of student (which would likely be Asian- which I am not) – so be it. This social engineering is an epic FAIL.

  • dzmlsience

    One generation of Fitzgeralds makes slaves of black people. Another makes fools of them.

    If your “gifts” are too much for your conscience to bear, Maura, why don’t YOU do something about it? You don’t need to involve other people in your public self-flagelation.

    History is full of odd turns. A victorious tribe that sold a conquered tribe into slavery has descendants living in unimaginable poverty while the descendants of the vanquished enjoy the highest standard of material wealth the world has ever known. Does that mean a black person living in Fairfax, VA today owes a debt to peasants in Senegal? Does a peasant in Senegal today owe a debt to American blacks?

    The whole conversation is nonsense. Release yourself from the white guilt that has been painstakingly cultivated in you. Reject it and live a virtuous life. Be judged for what you actually do in this world.

  • marcedward

    If you feel guilty, how about you change your behavior, rather than make everybody else pay for your cultural guilt? Don’t put it on others, dedicate your life to making up for your own evil family history. It’s lame as heck to demand everybody else change because of your feelings.

  • ShadrachSmith

    Dear Maura,

    I know people who didn’t even get to name their dog, there are reasons you can’t rename the buildings or chisel names on the wall, not least among them:
    1) You didn’t build that, and
    2) I want to see Verizon’s bid.

    Your preferences are both thoughtful and noted, and thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Jeremy Caplin

    If you think the gifts in your life are “common to all white Americans” you really need to get out in the world a little more and visit the other 49 states.

  • Grant Hayter-Menzies

    I’m not an alumnus of Yale, but my slave-owning 9th great-grandfather Nathaniel Lynde of Saybrook (1st treasurer and land donor) helped set up what became Yale. I write about him in my forthcoming book about my family’s three centuries of complicity in African and Native American slavery. And I’m glad the truth is coming out, loud and clear. Thank you!

  • http://goo.gl/dPY2V5 Kevyne-Shandris

    Ms. Fitzgerald you may find something in this book that may offer you some peace in your soul searching with the past…

    http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/155488781X?ref_=pdp_new_dp_review

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/William_Coningham

    It’s difficult to come to terms with wealth that came from slave labor, especially families of means over the ages. But you also have to remember your ancestors were part of the mainstream of the day, as you see them today is how they thought of themselves, then. Progressives and intellectuals who knew right from wrong.

    We can’t go back and change that history, nor is it just to view them in contempt (for that was the conventional life of that time). We can look at history as it was though, and hopefully learn from it.

    There’s many lessons everyone can learn, but it’s important to not alienate (or excommunicate with your own past). Accept it, learn and teach others of how your family has progressed…today.