Five years after contentious name change, Grace Hopper community reflects on Calhoun legacy
Although Grace Hopper College’s former name — Calhoun — was removed in February 2017, memorabilia bearing his name or likeness still remains throughout the College.
Dante Motley, Contributing Photographer
Five years after Yale stripped John C. Calhoun from the name of what is now Grace Hopper College, remnants of the College’s former namesake are still etched in stone.
Feb. 11 marked the five year anniversary of the announcement that Calhoun College would be renamed Grace Hopper College, a decision made in the wake of widespread student protest. Although some relics of the college’s past have been replaced to reflect the new namesake, others remain. In interviews with the News, four students in Grace Hopper described Calhoun’s lingering presence in the College, which ranges from physical objects to some students referring to the College as Calhoun, even after the change. One Hopper student, Zoe Sinclair ’23, said that Calhoun’s name has such a negative racial connotation that it does not belong in the college at all.
“I feel like going to Yale, you already make this concession of, ‘I’m complicit in this University that doesn’t respect the community, that has this racist past, is elitist and is overall just problematic,” Sinclair said. “I think it has just become one of the many concessions that a Black person has to make coming to Yale.”
After months of renewed student protest in favor of a name change during the 2015-16 academic year, University President Peter Salovey announced in April 2016 that the name of the college would remain Calhoun, sparking widespread backlash. But advocacy and attention to the name continued, and the following February, Salovey reversed his decision, announcing that the college would be renamed after United States Navy Rear Admiral and computer scientist Grace Hopper GRD ’34.
Head of College Julia Adams told the News that she hoped some relics of the college’s past, including the name Calhoun emblazoned above Hopper’s Cross Campus gate, would remain.
“You would lose the records of those decades of contestation and struggle over the name, and why it mattered,” Adams said. “Those are some of the key traces. They exist in our memories, too, but it’s a tremendous aide de memoire that they exist in the nooks and crannies of the college in ways that people can engage with.”
In the past year, Yale has made a renewed commitment to reevaluate its historical relationship with slavery, formally acknowledging the University’s ties to slavery for the first time this October. Prior to the name change, one of the prime examples of slavery’s legacy on Yale’s campus was that of John C. Calhoun — an 1804 graduate, American statesman and virulent racist who argued that slavery was not a “necessary evil,” but a “positive good.”
“The decision to change a college’s name is not one we take lightly,” Salovey wrote in his 2017 announcement of the change. “But John C. Calhoun’s legacy as a white supremacist and a national leader who passionately supported slavery as a ‘positive good’ fundamentally conflicts with Yale’s mission and values.”
When the name change went into effect on July 1, 2017, it marked the first time in the University’s history that the name of a building was changed because of the legacy of its namesake. Although current Hopper students have never known it as Calhoun, the legacy of the former name and the movement to change it is still salient within the college, several members of the Hopper community told the News.
After the change, Adams explained, many students began developing a new identity as Hopper students. Among other things, students had to settle on a replacement for the term “‘Hounies,” which had previously been used to refer to students in the college — now, Hopper students are often referred to as “Hopplites.”
Adams, who began as Head of College in 2014 and remained Head throughout the name change and its aftermath, told the News that the name change brought with it a cultural shift within the college.
“Direct experience gives way to our own capacity to remember and to learn,” Adams said. “I expected there to be a culture change responding to the elimination of this very negative affiliation and the enormous, celebratory attachment to the Grace Hopper figure, who is just a fantastic symbol. What I hadn’t actually counted on, and what was virtually immediate, was this huge sense that everyone seemed to have an enormous weight coming off their shoulders.”
Hopper College Council President Kate Williams ’24 agreed, referencing the “uplifting and prideful” culture that she said has characterized the college since the name change.
For the five year anniversary, HCC assembled a timeline in the Hopper courtyard documenting the student advocacy that precipitated the name change. Students were invited to view the timeline on Friday, and to partake in eating celebratory cake.
“One of the reasons why HCC wanted to make a timeline and educate people about the history is because I feel like it should still be prominent on everyone’s minds,” Williams said. “It’s five years, but in reality, five years isn’t that long. It’s not long enough to solidify and completely erase the culture that we used to have in our college.”
Physical markers of Calhoun’s legacy still persist in the college. Beyond the engraving above the Cross Campus gate, books in the Grace Hopper library have Calhoun College name plates inside their front covers, a stone carving of Calhoun looks over the college’s G entryway and stained glass in the dining hall depicts what Adams described as a “romanticized vision of the flora and fauna of the Antebellum South.” Although it has been partially obscured by the addition of a wooden panel, a bust of Calhoun is permanently installed in the parlor of the college, an anteroom off the dining hall.
Williams noted that these relics help depict the history of the name change. But she also called for the incorporation of updated memorabilia.
“I think it is important to remember that we used to be Calhoun and what that meant and I think that it’s also important to start leaving Grace Hopper’s imprint on the college as well,” Williams said. “Like new labels for the library books, whether that’s covering up the old labels, if that’s what we decide to do, or if it’s placing the labels side by side.”
But some Hopper students find the presence of Calhoun memorabilia troublesome, and are seeking to remove it entirely.
In Salovey’s message to the University community announcing the name change, he stipulated that the University would not remove “carvings or other physical representations of John C. Calhoun on campus in keeping with the principle outlined by the Committee to Establish Principles on renaming, which outlines the University’s “obligation not to efface the history.”
To Hopper student Maya Fonkeu ’25, arguments for keeping remnants of Calhoun in the college evoke those used to justify memorials to Confederate soldiers.
“People were arguing that they couldn’t be removed because we had to preserve the history,” Fonkeau said. “I just think that there are better ways to preserve history than keeping up memorials of racist individuals.”
Fonkeu suggested that a plaque be installed to honor the work of activists who advocated for the name change, rather than preserving elements of Calhoun’s legacy.
Fonkeu recalled a meeting of the HCC where students brought up the Calhoun nameplates in the library, arguing that they should be replaced to reflect the name change. Fonkeu expressed frustration that Adams was hesitant to remove the Calhoun nameplates out of an importance of “preserving the history.” Paula Toranzo Paredes ’25 confirmed that this incident occurred, and said that she too left the meeting dissatisfied.
Adams told the News that the Hopper nameplates would eventually be added to the books, although she did not specify whether the Calhoun nameplates would be removed.
The stained glass windows in the college in particular have been a lightning rod for discourse on the remnants of Calhoun’s legacy since 1992, when student protests culminated in the removal of a pane of glass depicting an enslaved person kneeling at Calhoun’s feet.
In June 2016, dining hall employee Corey Menafee made national news after he smashed a windowpane in the college dining hall depicting enslaved people picking cotton. The University originally fired and pressed charges against Menafee in response to the incident, but later rescinded both decisions.
“I took a broomstick, and it was kind of high, and I climbed up and reached up and broke it,” Menafee told the New Haven Independent. “It’s 2016, I shouldn’t have to come to work and see things like that.”
Panels depicting Calhoun in the Hopper College common room were removed following the incident, which the college has temporarily replaced with amber panes.
In February 2018, the college commissioned artist Faith Ringgold to design replacements for the windows, and Barbara Earl Thomas was commissioned in July 2020 to design a new set of windows for the dining hall. Both artists are Black women.
“When looking to replace the racist parts of Yale, I think it’s best to get work done by Black or POC creators,” Fonkeu said. “It just seems fitting.”
Although the COVID-19 pandemic has delayed the installation of the windows, Adams said that they would likely be installed in September 2022. Ringgold’s windows will portray aspects of student life, Adams told the News, while Earl Thomas’ will include direct commentary on the name change.
The windows, Adams said, were not just a “reproduction or a preservation” of the college’s memorials to Calhoun, but a way to engage with them creatively.
“I’m proud of our Hopper students for being deeply interested in this process, for caring about it and for wanting to advance it further toward more justice, more transparency and a deeper understanding of history,” Adams said.
In a preliminary design for one of Barbara Earl Thomas’ panels, a robin removes a banner bearing Calhoun’s name, while a hummingbird brings Hopper’s to the forefront.