Everyone is waiting for Corey Menafee. I can see my breath in the air, and the wind is unrelenting, but no one is leaving. The facade of Woodbridge Hall looks stately in the fall sunlight. The organizers of the Change the Name Rally stand atop the building’s front steps, and a crowd of nearly 200 students, faculty, staff and other New Haven residents huddles below. Kica Matos, emcee of the rally and director of immigrant rights and racial justice at the Center for Community Change, says the guest of honor is running late but will arrive any minute now. In the meantime, a few speakers address the demonstrators, and some activists with megaphones lead call-and-response chants.
“Calhoun does not deserve this fame.”
Change the name.
“Eighty-three years of racist shame.”
Change the name.
“Racism lives and Yale’s to blame.”
Change the name.
“Take down those racist window panes.”
Change the name.
“Racist images cause us pain.”
Change the name
“Yale’s excuses are totally lame.”
Change the name.
The rally started at the corner of College and Elm, where protesters began to congregate on the New Haven Green over an hour before arriving at Woodbridge. Many carried placards inscribed with phrases like “JUSTICE CAN’T WAIT” and “CALHOUN=SLAVERY.” Most popular, perhaps, were picket signs calling on Yale to “Smash Racism.” Cameramen from FOX 61, NBC CT and other state TV news networks swarmed the outskirts of the scene. Students, activists and even a Yale professor — American studies professor Charles Musser ’73 — roused the crowd with brief but impassioned speeches. One speaker — a member of Unidad Latina en Accion — donned a homemade Corey Menafee costume consisting of a broomstick and an apron emblazoned in black and red ink with the words “CALHOUN [crossed out] STOP RACISM CHANGE THE NAME ¡NOW!”
From the Green, the crowd marched in a loop around campus, holding a 30-foot-long, traffic-cone-orange banner that read, “YALE: #CHANGE THE NAME!” and chanting all the way. Each time the procession passed a college, more students joined. A dining worker at Berkeley College swung open a back door to salute the demonstrators as they passed. The march came to a halt beneath the engraved roman numerals of Woodbridge Hall, where the protesters would submit a letter to University President Peter Salovey demanding that he change the name of Calhoun College, and where Corey Menafee was slated to deliver remarks during his half-hour lunch break.
Now, standing in the cold outside Woodbridge, I begin to doubt whether he is coming at all.
“He’s here!” A woman shouts from the back. “He just got here!”
A LESSON GOT TAUGHT
Corey Menafee catapulted into first the local and then the national spotlight in mid-June when he smashed a stained-glass windowpane in the Calhoun College dining hall that depicted slaves picking cotton. For more than six months, Menafee had worked at Calhoun without noticing the imagery, in part because of his nearsightedness. When a visiting Calhoun College alumnus first told him about the windowpane, Menafee didn’t believe him until the man pointed it out. Menafee recalled feeling “hurt” and “shocked” as he looked at it for the first time.
“Like they say, a picture’s worth a thousand words,” he told me. “That picture might have been worth a million words. I don’t know, it just hit me. It just touched my heart to look up in 2016 and to see real — well it was a picture, but a picture depicting real slaves in a field picking cotton. There’s no real place for that in today’s society. It’s degrading, it’s disrespectful and it shouldn’t be there. Period.”
A week after the alumnus brought the imagery to his attention, Menafee climbed on top of a table and, reaching up with a broomstick, knocked the windowpane to the ground, where it shattered on contact. The Yale Police Department arrived soon afterward to arrest Menafee. In the aftermath of the incident, the YPD filed a misdemeanor charge of reckless endangerment and a felony charge of criminal mischief against Menafee.
Corey Menafee is no firebrand. According to the police report filed by Officer D.J. Rainville, both of Menafee’s managers at Calhoun said he was “a very good employee” and had “not given cause for serious discipline in the past.” Marquise Evans, a General Services assistant who worked with Menafee at the Davenport dining hall for nearly two years, attested to his former coworker’s work ethic and amenability. Above all, Evans said, he worked for the students.
When I asked Menafee what he does for fun, he first mentioned watching sports. Second, he listed working in the dining hall.
“I just enjoy it,” he said. “As corny as that sounds, I love my job as a General Services assistant. Working with the staff, managers, students, I truly do enjoy it.”
Of course, Menafee doesn’t love everything about Yale. He firmly believes that the University should change the name of Calhoun College — hence his appearance at the Change the Name Rally. The name of one of America’s most ardent proponents of slavery “casts a shadow of oppression,” he said.
Still, he sympathizes with University President Peter Salovey. He admitted that he could not possibly know what it is like to occupy the president’s seat and face the predicament that Salovey faces regarding the Calhoun College name debate.
“The president’s a figurehead: He takes the fall when things go wrong, he takes the praise when things go right,” Menafee said. “So in that respect, I do kind of feel for him because I’m sure he has pressure from both sides to change it and to keep it.”
To those who worked with Menafee in the college dining halls, his radical actions came as a shock. In the police report, both managers of Calhoun dining hall expressed their “surprise” at his behavior. Evans, too, remembered being “real surprised” when he heard what had happened. And yet his former coworker’s actions made sense, he said. Menafee would not have done it without a reason — “he wouldn’t have did it if it didn’t bother him.”
Corey’s younger brother, Mitchell Menafee, echoed Evans’ belief that his brother acted with a purpose in mind. Unlike Evans, though, Mitchell wasn’t surprised at all when he got the call from their uncle — who, he told me, is “very animated” and prone to “exaggerate” — informing him that “Corey went crazy at work, broke something.”
“I wasn’t surprised because my brother is a smart guy, and I’m sure he has his reasons for everything he does,” Mitchell explained. “Not that he doesn’t make mistakes, but how we came up, every mistake is a lesson, and a lesson got taught the day that he broke that window.”
Five months later, everyone who advocates changing the name of Calhoun College is still talking about how Corey Menafee shattered that windowpane — everyone, that is, except for Corey Menafee. And that’s because he can’t.
In July, Menafee and his attorney, Patricia Kane, traveled to New York City for an interview with Amy Goodman and Juan González of Democracy Now!. During negotiations over Menafee’s reinstatement, Yale requested that Menafee stop giving interviews, Kane told me. She “laughed at the suggestion.”
“ ‘Are you kidding?’ ” she recalls asking. “ ‘[Interviews are] the best tool we have in our pocket.’ ”
When Yale announced that it would offer Menafee his job back, the University demanded that he sign a nondisclosure agreement as a condition of reinstatement. The original agreement would have prohibited both Menafee and Kane from discussing the window incident or the ensuing case. Unwilling to forfeit her right to speak out, Kane withdrew as Menafee’s attorney for labor issues, although she remained his criminal attorney. With the backing of Yale’s blue-collar union, Local 35, Menafee signed the agreement. He now works at the Morse-Stiles dining hall.
Kane believes the nondisclosure agreement is “antidemocratic” because it stifles conversation. The University, however, issued a statement in its defense.
“As with any sensitive employment situation that involves personal information and private negotiations, individuals, corporations and institutions like Yale agree to sign agreements binding both parties to confidentiality regarding the terms of the agreement and specifics of the negotiations to the benefit of all parties involved,” read a previous statement shared by University spokesman Tom Conroy. “Nothing in these agreements hinders their First Amendment right to free speech.”
While the nondisclosure agreement restricts his ability to speak on the events of the past five months, Menafee can talk about anything precedent or subsequent to the controversy — and that he did. Still, he was hesitant at first.
When I asked to speak with him, Menafee wanted to meet downtown rather than on campus. Sitting across from me at the corner table of the Starbucks on Chapel and Church, he looked nervous. Every couple minutes, he scanned the street as if on lookout. He craned his neck to peer out the window at his back, too.
UNDERSIZED BUT ABLE
Menafee grew up in New Haven with a single mother. Every three to five years, April Menafee moved the family to a new apartment in search of “a better quality of life for [her children],” he said. A home health aid and factory worker, April ran a strict household and held her children to high standards. It is to her that Menafee attributes his sharp sense of right and wrong.
“When I did right, she rewarded me,” he recalled. “When I did wrong, she reprimanded me. She was a strict, no-nonsense type lady. But at the same time she was a very loving and nurturing woman. So I had that balance.”
April Menafee administered justice with a heavy hand. When a second-grade teacher called to inform her that Corey had been misbehaving in class, she came into school, pulled her son’s pants down and spanked him in front of the class. He chuckled as he recounted the “traumatic” incident: “I fell in line after that.” Nevertheless, Menafee emphasized that his mother always gave him her love and support, despite her bouts of severity. By her example, she showed him how to live a “righteous” life. Mitchell described their mother in the same terms. Again and again, both he and his brother reiterated that they live “righteously” for her.
Menafee told me that the best times of his life were his high school and college years, although he didn’t appreciate it at the time. A lifelong football fan, Menafee played four years on the James Hillhouse High School varsity team. After playing receiver his freshman year, he became an undersized offensive lineman, standing 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighing just 140 pounds.
“I used to love that,” he reminisced. “I don’t know. I guess it’s like a microcosm of my life. I was undersized, wasn’t expected to do much, but I was able to block. I was able to block effectively and earn the respect of my teammates.”
In 1997, Menafee matriculated at Virginia Union University, a small historically black university in Richmond. At VUU, the football team’s 5 a.m. jogs were enough to deter him from trying to play at the collegiate level. Instead, Menafee devoted himself to journalism, serving as the sports editor for the school newspaper, the VUU Informer, and interning for the university’s sports information director. He also reported on the football team for the local radio station.
After graduating from VUU with a degree in mass communications, Menafee returned home to pursue a career in journalism and to care for his mother, who had diabetes and had gone blind when he was a sophomore in high school. In New Haven, though, he struggled to make inroads into the local news scene. All of the mainstream news sources he approached turned him away.
“You know, once I started hearing ‘no, no, no, no, no,’ I kind of lost interest in the field and became more focused on just securing employment,” he said. “I went down to WTNH [a local New Haven TV station] and couldn’t even get through the front door. Those revolving doors, they’re actually locked. You can’t just go in there.”
Both Menafee and Kane ascribed his difficulties to a lack of connections. Without “a network of contacts who could help him get to the next place,” she said, he had little chance to break into the insular guild of Connecticut journalism.
Menafee wrote a few articles for the West Haven Voice, a weekly publication, but eventually abandoned his hopes of becoming a journalist to work for Pitney Bowes Management Services, where he scanned paper insurance files into a computer database. After a brief stint in New York City, he returned to New Haven and took a job as a weekend pot washer in Yale’s Commons Dining Hall. Although Menafee appreciates his job at Yale, Kane said, she believes that “his abilities are a lot more than what he’s doing at the moment.” Menafee’s journalistic acumen became apparent as soon as I introduced myself: when I broached the idea of writing this story, he immediately asked what my angle would be.
But when I asked Mitchell if he thought his brother regretted not becoming a journalist, he shook his head without hesitation.
“I don’t think Corey lives his life that way,” he said. “I don’t think he does regrets.”
To most people, Corey Menafee would seem to have ample reason to dwell in the past. In 2003, his mother passed away two weeks before her 45th birthday. He described her death as “one of the biggest things traumatically that happened to me in my life” and as “a game changer.” A freshman in high school at the time, Mitchell became dependent on his older brother in his mother’s absence. Both brothers told me that Corey became like a father to Mitchell from that point on.
“It was an emotional time inwardly, but I didn’t express that,” Corey said. “I kept my game face on.”
In 2009, while speeding away from a fight with his wife, whom he had married the year prior, Menafee lost control of his car and crashed into a tree. He came away from the wreck with a fractured right hip, dislocated left hip and shattered pelvis. Nonetheless, he stressed that the situation could have been worse.
With his pelvis stabilized by a configuration of plates and screws, Menafee began learning to walk again. A year into his rehabilitation, however, the screws became infected and required replacement. He had to restart the entire process. At the same time, he and his wife were separating.
“It was a total adjustment,” he said. “I just stayed with my brother at the time and then eventually went back to work like I always do. That’s funny. I never really thought about it like that. I never really thought about it like that, but yeah. I went back to work like I always do and kept moving.”
Menafee still walks with a limp. The first two times we spoke about his life before Yale, he never mentioned the crash. Only when I asked Mitchell about the limp did I hear about the accident. When I raised the question with Corey, he said he had “forgotten all about that.”
Menafee told me that he tries to live according to the following credo, which he “composed in his head.”
“Life is constantly changing,” he said. “Five minutes ago, something’s different from right now. Strong people can adapt to the change. They can make the necessary adjustment they need to and keep moving. Weak people remain devastated forever about whatever just occurred that changed something dramatically in their life. They can’t overcome it. They become dependent on drugs, alcohol, whatever. They can’t make it in society. I’ll just finish that by saying I am not a weak person.”
MOMENTUM TO A MOVEMENT
Following the window-smashing incident, presented with the choice either to resign or be fired, Menafee chose the former. Although his resignation agreement contains no quid pro quo, Kane said Yale assured her client verbally that he would not be prosecuted if he stepped down.
But after his resignation, the University did not initially recommend that the state drop criminal charges against Menafee. Kane claimed that Yale reneged on its offer. But the University denied agreeing to any quid pro quo.
Menafee showed up to court without a computer, a lawyer or any awareness of the media attention focused on his case. Having heard about the situation from a friend involved in New Haven activism, Kane met Menafee at the public defender’s office to offer her services pro bono, and he accepted. David Yaffe-Bellany ’19, a staff reporter for the News who covered the event for the New Haven Independent, was struck by the chaos outside the courthouse.
“It was like a media circus,” Yaffe-Bellany recalled. “When we walked out, it was like something that you’d see on TV news with a huge crowd of reporters like pointing cameras and microphones at this guy as he walks out of court and then down the steps.”
After much community activism on Menafee’s behalf and a series of negotiations between Kane and Yale representatives, the University recommended that the state not prosecute him. Although the state dropped criminal charges, Kane thinks the University “really tried to make an example of him.”
Kane was not the only one critical of Yale. In court, Judge Philip A. Scarpellino spoke harshly of the University’s efforts to recover the 27 pieces of broken glass collected outside Calhoun College.
“Yale can wait for their glass,” Scarpellino told the crowded courtroom, “and hopefully won’t put it back together.”
If Yale was vilified, then Menafee was lionized. He was the keynote speaker at the Change the Name Rally. Numerous “Smash Racism” signs alluded to the shattering of the window. Edgar Sandoval — the man wearing the Corey Menafee costume at the rally — called Menafee’s actions “inspiring.” While Sandoval said he doesn’t plan to take such drastic measures as Menafee did, he will “try to follow his steps to make change.”
At the Morse-Stiles dining hall, though, Corey Menafee is an ordinary employee. Gwen Lockman, one of his coworkers at Morse-Stiles, said the window incident doesn’t come up at work. She added that Menafee is “a respectful kid,” “a good worker” and “just a good-hearted person.”
For Menafee, becoming a public figure has meant making adjustments. Mitchell told me that he and his brother are not “attention seekers” — they “just deal with the world as it comes to [them].” That’s how Corey has managed the scrutiny he has faced in the wake of the window incident.
“It’s a slight adjustment you have to make,” Menafee said. “You have to be mindful of how you conduct yourself in public because you never know who’s watching you or who’s listening to you, and people recognize you now, so you just have to be mindful of that. You have to speak in a way that’s not offensive to people because you don’t want to push people away from you.”
Menafee never expected to become the face of a movement. Before he broke the window, he had never participated in any sort of activism. Even now, he doesn’t consider himself an activist. He admits that his actions give “momentum to a movement.” But that, he said, was never his intention.
Whatever his intent, though, Menafee became an agent of our nation’s reckoning with a history of racism, his brother said.
“He’s a celebrity around here,” Mitchell said. He paused. “I’m just happy that he was able to get his job back.”
BACK TO WORK
Hailed by a chorus of cheers, Corey Menafee limps through the crowd, which parts around him as he approaches the steps of Woodbridge Hall. He wears a beanie on his head and a parka over his black and blue dining hall uniform. Matos introduces him, and another demonstrator hands him a megaphone. “Thank you,” she tells him, for “opening our eyes.” At first, he can’t get the megaphone to work and, after fumbling with it for a bit, calls in assistance. Even when he begins to speak, it looks like he has never used a megaphone before.
“Thank you all for coming today for this purpose of demonstrating our discontent with the name Calhoun — John Calhoun — College,” he said. “We are here because we no longer want the name Calhoun casting a shadow on our University, the University we’ve all come to know and to love, and we are here because we want the powers that be to hear us, to hear us loudly and clearly, that the time for change is now. Not next semester, not the year after, but now. Thank you very much. God bless all of you.”
The speech lasts exactly one minute. Menafee doesn’t linger. As he hands over the megaphone and descends the steps, the crowd’s cheers and applause coalesce into a call-and-response chant.
“What do we want?”
“When do we want it?”
The chant is one of a few that the demonstrators have cycled through since they assembled on the Green. They have probably repeated those words hundreds of times. But now, they seem to have a newfound urgency.
Meanwhile, Menafee wades through the crowd, accepting handshakes and pats on the back as he goes. He doesn’t stop to chat. He just continues through the crowd and walks down Wall Street, back to Morse and Stiles — back to work, like he always does.