Yale, Other Colleges Facing Backlash of Buildings Named for Slave Owners

By Stannard, Ed | New Haven Register (New Haven, CT), May 28, 2016 | Go to article overview

Yale, Other Colleges Facing Backlash of Buildings Named for Slave Owners


Stannard, Ed, New Haven Register (New Haven, CT)


NEW HAVEN » John C. Calhoun wasn't the only slave owner who has a Yale residential college named for him.

In fact, almost all of the 10 men so honored either owned slaves or promoted slavery as a "positive good," and Elihu Yale has been portrayed in paintings being waited on by a black "servant."

It's a legacy that cannot be erased, and perhaps shouldn't be, according to historians.

"I guess virtually every college name has been challenged on the basis of the racism of the past," said Christopher Collier, a former state historian.

In fact, he said, "Abolition was held in high disregard until the 1840s or so ... Black speakers would speak in Hartford ... and mobs would beat them up when they came out."

Not only that, but "There's general agreement among historians that Connecticut was the most racist [colony] in New England," Collier said.

"Sometimes it makes sense to change names; sometimes it doesn't," Collier said. "You have to deal with people in the terms of their own values."

As an example, he predicted that future generations will question how men and women could have been paid unequally in our time, and we may not want to be judged by contemporary values. He called the attitude "presentism": judging people by values that have changed over time.

Yale President Peter Salovey announced last month that the Yale Corporation, facing pressure from many students and alumni to change the name of Calhoun College, had decided against removing the South Carolinian slavery apologist's name. The decision unleashed a wave of anger that erupted at a student forum held by Salovey, followed by a rally to "rename" Calhoun College.

The issue is not unique to Yale. Georgetown University recently renamed two buildings named for presidents who had a part in selling slaves to underwrite the university. The University of North Carolina recently changed the name of Saunders Hall, named for a Ku Klux Klan organizer, to Carolina Hall. At the same time, however, UNC said it would not rename other buildings for at least 16 years, leaving Aycock Residence Hall, named for a white supremacist, as is, according to the Huffington Post.

Clemson and Winthrop universities have halls named after U.S. Sen. Benjamin Tillman, a racist activist. And in Rhode Island, Brown University is named for benefactor Nicholas Brown, who owned a slave ship, according to a study the university conducted. That report, "Slavery and Justice," summed up the difficulty in separating slavery from American institutions:

"Determining what percentage of the money that founded Brown is traceable to slavery is impossible ... slavery was not a distinct enterprise but rather an institution that permeated every aspect of social and economic life in Rhode Island, the Americas, and indeed the Atlantic World."

At Yale, Alexis Williams, a Calhoun sophomore, was among several students who said Calhoun was chosen as a focus because he was outspoken in support of slavery and because of his prominent role as a vice president and U.S. senator. She said the push to change other names would be saved "maybe for another day, but I think ... if you look at what the man stood for, Calhoun was the most vocal of any statesman" of the era.

Rianna Johnson-Levy, a junior from Jonathan Edwards College, said the demand to rename Calhoun was intentionally chosen.

"I think this is a decision that has been made last fall. ... We offered Salovey a concrete list of demands," she said.

In his message to the university, Salovey said keeping the name of Calhoun College offered an educational opportunity.

"Retaining the name forces us to learn anew and confront one of the most disturbing aspects of Yale's and our nation's past. I believe this is our obligation as an educational institution," Salovey wrote.

Salovey also announced that two new residential colleges, which will open in the fall of 2017, will be named for Pauli Murray, a black civil rights and women's rights activist, and Benjamin Franklin, a onetime slave owner who became an abolitionist. …

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