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Yale's Calhoun College: History Lesson or Institutional Racism?

Creative Commons
Calhoun College at Yale University.
Calhoun was a fervent proponent of slavery.

Credit Jane Long / Yale Daily News
Yale Daily News
Chris Rabb, Yale '92, was able to get this stained glass in the common room at Calhoun College changed. The original glass depicted a black slave in shackles kneeling before the pro-slavery statesman, John C. Calhoun.

As South Carolina considers removing the Confederate flag flying over the state Capitol, some are questioning why a building at Yale bears the name of one of this country's most passionate advocates for slavery.

In 1932, Yale University transformed the former divinity school building into Calhoun College, naming the residential college after 1804 Yale grad John C. Calhoun. Calhoun later went on to be Vice President of the United States, and a U.S. Senator from South Carolina.

Calhoun was also an unapologetic slave owner and fervent proponent of slavery.

For more than 50 years, a stained glass in the common room of Calhoun College depicted a black man in shackles kneeling before Calhoun.

"I was insulted. I was shocked. I was mad as hell," said Yale alum Chris Rabb, who is African-American on WNPR's Colin McEnroe Show. He was proud that he was able to get the image of the black slave removed from the stained glass, but his family thought otherwise.

"I was insulted. I was shocked. I was mad as hell."
Chris Rabb

"They said: 'No; what you did was wrong. We need these reminders of institutional racism. We don't want any successive generation of black folk, or anyone else coming through Yale thinking that Yale is anything other than what it is,'" Rabb said.

Listen below to the segment with Rabb on the show:

Jonathan Holloway, Yale Professor of American History and Chair of Yale's Department of African American Studies, said that in the past, he has agreed with Rabb's family. 

In an article last year in Yale Alumni Magazine, Holloway said that Yale should retain the name Calhoun College "as an open sore, frankly, for the purpose of having conversations about this... I want to hold Yale University accountable for this."

"The historian in me sees with alarm our national propensity to forget ugliness for the convenience of the modern moment."
Jonathan Holloway

But in a statement sent to WNPR, Holloway indicated that he may have changed his mind:

I have to confess, however, that the events of the last 18 months and especially the monstrosity in Charleston have rattled me. Yes, the historian in me still sees with alarm our national propensity to forget ugliness for the convenience of the modern moment, but the citizen in me just keeps seeing example after example of an inability to imagine that African Americans have a humanity that ought to be respected.

"I don't think that when people see the name Calhoun, they walk by it, and then that prompts them to say, well, who is Calhoun, and what did he do?" said Khalilah Brown-Dean, associate professor of political science at Quinnipiac University. 

Credit Chion Wolf / WNPR
Khalilah Brown-Dean in a WNPR file photo.
"Having those repeated names and symbols, to many, is just a further infliction of hurt."
Khalilah Brown-Dean

"We are not having those conversations, so having those repeated names and symbols, to many, is just a further infliction of hurt. It is not producing conversation," Brown-Dean said.

Karen Peart, deputy press secretary for Yale's Office of Public Affairs and Communications, said the university has no official statement regarding Calhoun College, but referenced Holloway's statements in last year's alumni magazine article.

A sculpture of John C. Calhoun is mounted on Yale's Harkness tower, along with such notable alums as Nathan Hale and Eli Whitney.

Monuments and tributes to Calhoun across the nation have drawn protest in wake of the Charleston church shooting. An online petition calling for Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis to be renamed recently surfaced. In Charleston’s Marion Square, astatue of Calhoun was recently defaced with the word "racist" in red spray paint.

Ray Hardman is Connecticut Public’s Arts and Culture Reporter. He is the host of CPTV’s Emmy-nominated original series Where Art Thou? Listeners to Connecticut Public Radio may know Ray as the local voice of Morning Edition, and later of All Things Considered.

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