In spring 2016, a student group called Better Yale held a public art installation on Cross Campus directly in front of what was then named Calhoun College.
Students dressed in black, came out quietly and held plaques bearing names of Yale alumni, which they placed on Calhoun’s lawn. The protest argued that Yale was complicit in a racist past, and despite announcements that the University was considering a name change for the residential college in 2015, the change to Grace Hopper College did not happen until public backlash from the New Haven community and students two years later. Those involved with the decisions reflected on the change in interviews with the News.
“Erasing Calhoun’s name from a much-beloved residential college [would downplay] the lasting effects of slavery and [substitute] a false and misleading narrative,” University President Peter Salovey stated and the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming, chaired by John Witt ’94 GRD ’98 LAW ’99 GRD ’00, repeated in its 2016 report on the principles of renaming.
Following the murders of nine African Americans at a prayer service in Charleston, South Carolina by a young white man whose social media posting were filled with symbols of white supremacy, Salovey addressed the legacy of John Calhoun and Yale’s connection to white supremacy and slavery during his 2015 opening address.
He talked about the idea of renaming the college, stating that the campus would need to “give careful consideration” in a name associated with such a historical figure. According to Timothy Dwight Head of College Mary Lui, it seemed like Salovey was about to make a change. There were many open conversations with community members and student-led protests on campus.
However, a year later, no change had been made. Following backlash from the New Haven community and students in 2016, Calhoun College finally became Grace Hopper College in 2017.
Most of the residential colleges were named after men who had a significant influence in Connecticut, like John Davenport, the founder of New Haven, and Abraham Pierson, one of Yale College’s founders.
One of the reasons Calhoun was chosen was because Yale wanted to honor one of its highest-ranking government officials, said Judith Schiff, chief research archivist in the Yale Library Manuscripts and Archives.
When the college was created in 1931, Calhoun, who served as vice president in 1825 and secretary of state in 1844, was one of Yale’s highest-ranking officials, Schiff said.
However, Saybrook Head of College Thomas Near believes that those honoring Calhoun had ulterior motives.
“Think about the time that they named that college after him,” Near said about Calhoun. To Near, “[Calhoun] is the same damn thing” as having Robert E. Lee statues.
Near believes the name was meant to discourage Black people, telling them to “check your tone, slow your roll.”
On Nov. 21, 2016, the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming released a report on the issue of renaming a college and highlighted questions the University considered when renaming, such as whether the principal legacy of the namesake is at odds with Yale’s mission or whether a name alteration would erase or distort history.
Rise Nelson, the director of the Afro-American Cultural Center and assistant dean of Yale College, reflected on whether Calhoun is the only college name that should change.
“That was actually one of the questions that came up during the renaming … process,” said Nelson, who was also involved in several Yale renaming committees in 2015. “The thinking was well then we need to consider everyone — almost everyone.”
For example, according to Near, Samuel Morse was an anti-Semite. Schiff and Nelson reflected on that context in interviews with the News.
Schiff said that “the [name was] picked so quickly that nobody really knew” with regards to Morse’s history. The recommendation of Morse as a namesake was a “personal tip,” by letter, to the Yale President at the time, Alfred Whitney Griswold, Schiff said.
The letter, Schiff said, told Griswold that Morse was “the perfect man because he represents everything great about Yale.” According to Schiff, Morse was a great artist, invented the telegraph and brought the Daguerre system of photography to the United States. Like Calhoun, though, other aspects of his past might be a good reason to consider changing the college’s name.
Morse opposed the Civil War. Schiff said that he believed that instead of fighting, the issue of slavery should be worked out peacefully. Schiff also said that Morse believed that “the Bible permitted slavery.” There were also rumors that Morse was an anti-Semite. However, Schiff, contradicting Near, does not know “how anti-Semitic [Morse] was.”
The main difference for renaming Calhoun instead of Morse, or even the rest of the colleges, according to Nelson is “the prominence of [Calhoun’s] hatred and evil and racism and bigotry.”
According to Nelson, Calhoun used his political position to advance policies that targeted Indigenous groups and supported slavery.
One name that unambiguously does not transgress the University’s naming guidelines is Edward Bouchet ’74 GRD ’76. Bouchet’s name has been considered many times for some of the colleges. Nelson said that Bouchet was considered as a replacement for Calhoun.
Bouchet is considered to be the first Black graduate at Yale, and one of the earliest Black men ever to receive a degree, specifically one in physics. Moreover, he made many contributions to the Black community by teaching STEM at the Institute for Colored Youth.
“There was a more formal proposal submitted by an alum,” Nelson said. The alumnus, R. Owen Williams GRD ’02 GRD ’06 LAW ’07 GRD ’09, proposed to change Calhoun to Calhoun-Bouchet College. The purpose “was to not erase history by completely renaming it,” Nelson explained but to honor Bouchet and his legacy at Yale and academia by adding him to the name.
Bouchet’s name was also considered for the two new colleges that opened in 2017. Students at the time created a website with recommendations for the new colleges.
“Mock-up shields were made for the new colleges, names were proposed,” Nelson recalled. “It was really comprehensive and … thoughtful.”
Bouchet was one of the top names in the list. Students even made him his own shield.
Schiff, a fan of Bouchet, said she felt betrayed when Bouchet was not picked.
“It would have been such a good thing for New Haven,” she said.
Bouchet earned his doctorate in physics from Yale in 1876.
Kelsey Tamakloe | firstname.lastname@example.org
Correction, Feb. 25: A previous version of this story stated that Calhoun was the University’s highest-ranking official, which was not necessarily true. The article has updated to reflect that he was one of its highest-ranking officials.