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What's in a name? Looking for answers at Calhoun College

Among the wonders of Yale that greeted Chris Rabb: a stained-glass portrait of John C. Calhoun, class of 1804, "and a black man in shackles, in tatters, kneeling before him." The window illuminated the common room in Calhoun College—named in 1933 for the white supremacist statesman—when Rabb arrived as a member of the class of 1992.

Approaching the residential college's master, he said: "That is literally institutional racism," recalls Rabb, some of whose ancestors were enslaved in Calhoun's native South Carolina. "It’s architecturally baked into Calhoun, and it’s sickening."

Eventually the master (a title drawn from the English university system, not from the American human-chattel system) had the black man excised from the window. But Calhoun himself remains—in image and in name—despite the objections of some alumni and others who believe that Yale should revoke the honor accorded a politician who promoted slavery as "a great blessing."

Rabb, however, does not necessarily favor changing the name.

Nor, emphatically, does Calhoun College master Jonathan Holloway ’95PhD, a historian and chair of the African American Studies department.

When alumni gathered last month for the first Calhoun reunion, Holloway organized a panel discussion on "the history and legacy of the name of Calhoun." That's where Rabb told the story of the stained-glass window. And it's where Holloway explained his belief that the Calhoun name should remain "as an open sore, frankly, for the very purpose of having conversations about this."

“I’ve seen too many instances where Americans have very happily allowed themselves to be amnesiac and changed the name of something and walked away,” Holloway said, according to an audio recording of the panel.

"I want to hold Yale accountable for the decisions it made."

"Slave for a Day"

When he became master of Calhoun in 2005, "I was surprised to discover that students didn’t know who Calhoun was," Holloway recounted. "It was just the name of their college." At a council meeting, a student suggested a "slave for a day” fund-raiser.

"They were aghast," Holloway recalled, "to discover Calhoun’s history and his philosophy.”

A US senator, vice president, secretary of war, and secretary of defense, Calhoun was a leading promoter of slavery as beneficial not only to wealthy white owners, but also to "degraded and savage" Africans. He considered the proposition that "all men are born free and equal" to be "the most false and most dangerous of all political errors." Before his death in 1848, his stature and his passionate advocacy of slavery and states' rights to maintain slavery made him an influential force as the country headed toward civil war.

At the reunion panel, Yale archivist Judith Schiff recounted what little is known about the decision to name Calhoun College. Calhoun was not a major donor, but he'd already been chosen as one of Yale's "Eight Worthies"—alongside the likes of Nathan Hale, Eli Whitney, and Elihu Yale—honored with statues on Harkness Tower.

A Yale press release from 1931—when the predominant political view of the Civil War leaned toward conciliation, not judgment—announced simply that the new residential college would be named for "John Caldwell Calhoun, class of 1804, statesman," Schiff noted. "They decided they wanted to name a college after the most famous statesman that Yale had produced. No one seemed surprised."

"A Graphic Reminder"

Three-quarters of a century later, Holloway seized the "slave for a day" suggestion as a classic teachable moment. Through "conversations" like that one and the reunion panel, "we've got to deal with the open sore over and over and over,” he said.

But in a question-and-answer session, alumni politely suggested that more is needed.

“If the kids aren’t noticing it, it’s not really open enough,” one audience member said. Suggestions for provoking more "conversation" about Calhoun and his legacy ranged from bringing back the offensive stained-glass picture (or a recreation of it), to prominent coverage of the controversy on the Calhoun website, to a slavery museum right inside the college.

"You need a graphic reminder,” one alumnus said, recalling a 1970s visit to Berlin where, “smack in the middle of brand-new buildings,” he saw the rubble of a church that was bombed to pieces in World War II. "That city had that intention to say, this is what we don’t ever want to see again.”

Much of the discussion turned on an understanding of history, not as a recitation of supposedly objective facts, but as a way of understanding our collective past and present. When Rabb first raised his objection to the stained-glass window, he said, the college master responded: "You can't change history."

"You can't change the past," Rabb retorted. "But you can change history."

How Do You Take the Yale Out of the Yale?

The panel's moderator was Kathleen Cleaver ’84, ’89JD, a senior lecturer in African American Studies and a former Black Panther. Her students "are clueless about slavery," she said. She tells them: "There are people who walk around who are descendants of slaves," and descendants of slave owners, "and they’re right beside you."

Rabb is both. Three years after his graduation—at which he and classmates staged an impromptu protest about Calhoun's legacy—he learned that he's a direct descendant of Philip Livingston, class of 1737, Yale donor, Yankee, and "one of the biggest slave traders in this hemisphere."

The university, like others of its time, was built with wealth accumulated by slave traders and slave owners, Rabb reminded the audience.

“I don’t know how you take the Yale out of the Yale. If we pull out all of this iconography and all of these names, there’s not going to be a lot left."

Rather than changing the name of Calhoun College or Branford College's Livingston Archway, "the idea is to put other markers there that always make sure people know what’s really happened and how things came to be," Rabb said. "And that’s going to make a lot of people nervous, because it’s so extraordinarily ugly.”


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Calhoun College, slavery, Chris Rabb, Jonathan Holloway
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