Roosevelt Thompson, Calhoun College ’84, is the most compelling candidate to be Calhoun College’s new namesake.
It should go without saying that a significant majority of the Yale community would be in favor of renaming Calhoun College after an African-American.
Yet, we face a predicament: Residential colleges cannot be named after people still living, and there are relatively few African-American Yalies who fit that description.
Enter Roosevelt Thompson.
Roosevelt “Rosey” Thompson was not only a Rhodes Scholar but also a Truman Scholar his sophomore year, a first-round, junior-year pick to Phi Beta Kappa, winner of the Hart Lyman Prize, a freshman counselor, chairman of the Calhoun College Council, a chairman in the Yale Senior Class Council, coordinator of the Calhoun Troupe Tutoring Project, secretary of the Black Athletes at Yale, a member of the JV football team, a worker at New Haven City Hall and an intern for then-Gov. Bill Clinton LAW ’73, among other accomplishments.
He graduated as valedictorian of Little Rock Central High School, where in 1957 nine African-American students — the Little Rock Nine — sent shockwaves across the world by integrating Central High School with the help of the U.S. Army. There’s a PBS documentary about Roosevelt Thompson (search “Looking for Rosey” on YouTube), in which members of the Little Rock Nine and Clinton attest to Thompson’s character and promise.
An exceptional African-American scholar and public servant, Thompson tragically died in a car accident his senior year at Yale. Newsweek Magazine ran a full-page obituary in his honor; Bill Clinton cried at his funeral — he loved Rosey.
There is a prize awarded every year at Yale’s Commencement in his honor, a scholarship for Calhoun students provided in his name and a public library named after him in Arkansas. His is the only portrait that hangs on the Calhoun Library walls. There is a plaque outside Calhoun College in Thompson’s memory, a tree in the courtyard dedicated to him and the old varsity weight room was named after him. Alumni already love him.
“He was a hero — not only to students, but adults,” remembers former Calhoun College Dean David Spadafora. “He had all the personal decency, honor and compassion one could hope to find in a leader.” Former Calhoun College Master David Napier remembers of Rosey: “[He was] one of the most outstanding students to enroll at Yale in modern times, and it is doubtful we will ever see his like again.”
Some will ask, why not name Calhoun College after Richard Henry Green (class of 1857) — Yale College’s first black graduate — or Edward Bouchet (1874) or Jane Bolin (LAW ’32) or William Pickens (1904)?
Indeed, there will likely be pushback against naming Calhoun College after a Yalie who died at age 22, before he was able to become the first black governor of Arkansas — as many predicted Thompson would — or president of the United States, or inventor of X or CEO of Y.
Yet it is precisely this reason why Roosevelt Thompson makes an especially compelling candidate. He represents what Yale is — at its core — to countless students and alumni: possibility and hope for all; what could be and what should be. Thompson, unlike Green and Bouchet and Bolin and Pickens, was a Calhoun alum. Renaming Calhoun College after Roosevelt Thompson would be exactly what John C. Calhoun would have hated. It would highlight how being a black student at Yale — the domain of former slaveowners — is something valuable and precious in and of itself. It would reaffirm Yale’s commitment to providing such amazing opportunities to students of color today.
Who could dislike a guy like Rosey? His record is so outstanding and untarnished that renaming Calhoun after him would not invite the controversy that might come with other candidates. What is more, endorsements from the Little Rock Nine, Clinton and others of similar stature would be the best kind of publicity Yale could have.
There are so many relics of Thompson’s life already at Yale that it makes sense to take the next step and rename Calhoun College after him. He did not have a full lifetime to accomplish what Bouchet, Bolin, Green and Pickens accomplished. Yet his potential, his promise — isn’t that the kind of promise all of us so desperately aspired to when we first stepped through Phelps Gate? Isn’t that caliber of potential exactly what a Yale diploma symbolizes?
Let us signal to the world that Yale is not just defined by its alumni presidents, CEOs, scientists, artists and donors, but also by its students while they are still students. Let us rename Calhoun College after Roosevelt Thompson and institutionalize what he represented: A Yale that is at once a vision, a company of promise, a society of hope.
Alex Zhang is a sophomore in Calhoun College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .