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 firstname.lastname@example.org .