Josh Williams ’08 was always bothered by the name of Morse College, but never during his four years at Morse — named for the American inventor and prominent slavery apologist Samuel Morse, class of 1810 — did Williams consider petitioning the University to change the name.
Instead, Williams spent his time as an undergraduate advocating for students with grievances against other Yale community members. The thought that Yale might change the name of a residential college seemed like an impossibility, said Williams, who now serves as the lead pastor at Elm City Vineyard Church.
Williams recalled his discomfort with Morse College’s name in the Law School dining hall Tuesday night during the final scheduled listening session hosted by the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming, the University taskforce charged with writing guidelines for all future naming decisions on campus. The establishment of the naming committee last August came on the heels of exactly the sort of debate that Williams never thought could happen during his undergraduate years: a yearlong discussion about the naming of Calhoun College that has now evolved into a deeper inquiry into the University’s history and values.
At the Tuesday night event, roughly half a dozen members of the naming committee gathered for small-group discussions with students and community members. The event marked the conclusion of a series of public events held by the naming committee, including the committee’s visits to all 12 residential colleges in September and October, as well as a panel last month focussed on renaming controversies at other universities across the nation.
At the Law School event Tuesday, committee members dispersed throughout the dining hall and invited attendees to sit and talk with them about issues ranging from the Calhoun controversy to broader philosophical questions about renaming. The discussion was open to members of the larger Yale and New Haven community, a shift from the discussions in the residential colleges, which focused largely on undergraduates.
While the committee’s website allotted one hour for the event, the discussion ran for nearly two hours. The two dozen attendees ranged from first-year Yale graduate students to dining-hall workers to alumni curious about the current campus conversation on naming.
At the table led by committee chair and law professor John Witt ’94 LAW ’99 GRD ’00, Jordan Hasty DIV ’17 spoke of her upbringing in Calhoun County, South Carolina. She described the naming of Calhoun as “one piece on a chessboard” of broader questions about the University’s role as a political and intellectual leader.
“People from South Carolina and people from Yale know more about Calhoun than the average American, but that has significance,” Hasty told the News after the event.
History professor and committee member Beverly Gage ’94 sat with two Silliman freshmen who were still grappling with how last fall’s racially charged incidents, involving former Silliman Head of College Nicholas Christakis ’84, shaped how both they and others perceive their residential college. As early as last January, the Silliman students said, Yale’s Class of 2020 Facebook group discussed a viral video showing a Silliman student shouting at Christakis. But both students said that discussions about the courtyard incident have been few and far between since their arrival at Yale.
Meanwhile, Williams, who still speaks to Yale students who belong to his church, reflected on the summer before his freshman year at Yale, when he was still waiting for his residential college assignment.
“I was praying into the sorting hat — not Calhoun, not Calhoun — but then I got Morse, and I didn’t know anything about it,” Williams said.
History professor David Blight, the committee member sitting at Williams’ table, said he was surprised that Morse — whom he called a “terrible racist,” as well as an anti-Semite — has not received more scrutiny from the Yale community.
“Samuel Morse has a very problematic history, and there’s been no public conversation,” Blight said. “Why is it all only Calhoun? That’s an interesting question.”
Morse College was completed in 1961.