Student support has begun to coalesce around a new potential candidate for the renaming of Calhoun College: Roosevelt Thompson ’84.
On Thursday, a pair of Yale Corporation members — Senior Fellow Margaret Marshall LAW ’76 and Alumni Fellow Eve Hart Rice ’73 — hosted two listening sessions to discuss campus conversations surrounding the potential renaming of Calhoun College and the naming of the two new residential colleges. The first meeting was held exclusively for members of Calhoun College, and the second was open to the entire Yale community. Another open meeting will be held Friday morning. The Corporation has final jurisdiction over naming issues.
During the sessions on Thursday, many students in attendance, through both personal statements and more symbolic gestures, such as the distribution of roses, expressed support for renaming Calhoun after Thompson, a high-achieving African-American student in the college who died tragically in a car accident less than two months before his graduation. The sessions coincided with Thompson’s birthday. He would have been 54.
Marshall told the News that she had not heard many arguments in favor of Thompson prior to the meetings.
“The name of Mr. Thompson hadn’t emerged much before today, so you always have to listen,” she said. “I am not sure the name would have emerged if not for these sessions, but it has.”
In 1980, Thompson left his home in Arkansas — where he was valedictorian of Little Rock Central High, the site of a famous and divisive desegregation effort in 1957 — to start school at Yale. He played on the football team as an undergraduate and recorded a nearly perfect transcript. Thompson was an active member of the Calhoun community, serving on the college council and working as a freshman counselor his senior year. He also worked as an intern for then-Arkansas Gov. Bill Clinton LAW ’73. During his senior year, he was one of only a few dozen students nationwide to earn a prestigious Rhodes Scholarship. But on his way back from spring break in March 1984, Thompson died tragically in a car accident. Newsweek ran a full-page obituary. Clinton cried at his funeral.
At the Calhoun listening session Thursday afternoon, students passed out roses in a gesture of support for renaming the college after Thompson. Of the 35 students who attended, nearly a dozen individually stood up to speak in favor of the college being renamed after him.
Calhoun College Master Julia Adams declined to give her own opinion on whether the college should be renamed in honor of Thompson. Adams has previously called for the college to be rechristened Calhoun-Douglass, after 19th-century abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
Several students said an opinion article published Monday in the News by Calhoun student Alex Zhang ’18 that laid out the case for Thompson helped galvanize their support.
Zhang, who also attended Little Rock High School, said he spent his childhood hearing stories about Thompson.
“There’s really nothing to dislike about this guy, and I knew that many people would find his story resonating,” Zhang said in an interview Thursday. He said that in the days since his column was published, he has received emails from numerous alumni expressing support for the naming proposal.
Students present at the Calhoun session voiced their gratitude to Zhang for bringing Thompson’s story into the spotlight.
“I’m very thankful that he did voice that in so strong a manner, and that it did take a hold in the way it has,” said Austin Strayhorn ’19, who is in Calhoun.
Strayhorn said he first considered Thompson an option in the naming dispute when the founder of the Yale Black Men’s Union devoted an entire speech at the Union’s induction ceremony in September to Thompson’s legacy.
History professor Jay Gitlin ’71 MUS ’74 GRD ’02, who attended the University-wide listening session Thursday evening, said he knew Thompson personally prior to his passing. Calling him a “wonderful young man,” Gitlin said his death was a great tragedy.
Rianna Johnson-Levy ’17, who also attended the later session, told the News that Thompson is “the epitome of what you want a Yale student to be.”
“When we name colleges after alumni we admire, it’s really meaningful to make the category of student as important as statesman or theologian,” she said.
Jon Stein, a former New Haven Register reporter who once interviewed Thompson, said he could not think of a better candidate for the college name.
“If Calhoun is bad because of his view on race, why not replace [him] with an example of what integration can mean?” he said.
A plaque in the Calhoun College courtyard honors Thompson’s memory. Thompson’s portrait also hangs on the wall of the college library, while paintings of Calhoun were recently removed from the dining hall and master’s house.
Correction, Jan. 29: A previous version of this article incorrectly listed the date of a desegregation effort at Little Rock Central High as 1959. The correct date was 1957. The article also incorrectly referred to the high school in question as Little Rock High School. It is actually named Little Rock Central High.