There have been calls at Yale for decades to change the college’s name, but this summer the university decided to consider them in earnest in a kind of extended town meeting. When the academic year began, Yale’s President, Peter Salovey, and the Dean of Yale College, Jonathan Holloway, greeted the incoming freshman class with a call for the university community to engage in “an open conversation.” In Salovey’s words, it’s about “how best to address the undeniable challenges associated with the fact that Calhoun’s name graces a residential community in Yale College, an institution where, above all, we prize both the spirit and reality of full inclusion.”
Holloway, who is a professor of history, American studies, and African American studies, was the Master of Calhoun College for eight years until 2014. In that role, he told a group of Yale-Calhoun alumni last year, he favored retaining the college’s name “as an open sore, frankly, for the very purpose of having conversations about this.” He went on, “I want to hold Yale accountable for the decisions it made.”
Recently, however, he suggested that he might have changed his mind. After the Charleston murders, he told The New York Times last month, “I found myself disillusioned.” At a discussion about “Charleston and Its Aftermath,” he said that taking the name off the college would be the easy part. The hard part would be deciding what Yale should do to help address American problems of racial inequality tracing back to slavery, but also stemming from how the United States chose to distort the nation’s memory of the Civil War, greatly perpetuating those problems.
The Yale historian David Blight is an expert about that choice. In Race and Reunion, his prize-winning 2001 account of the Civil War in American memory during the half-century following the war, he recounted that the reunion of his book’s title—reconciliation is the formal term—was between the North and the South, not between the races. In the constructed history that prevailed, the war was remembered as a quarrel that got out of hand between white Americans on either side of the Mason-Dixon Line, and not as a war fought over whites’ enslavement of blacks. Each side acknowledged the valor of the other in fighting for its convictions, without facing up to the irreconcilable differences in those beliefs and conducting themselves as if the North had won.
Reconciliation triumphed over emancipation, because it brought relief and was a predicate for rebuilding the country, but also because it allowed for the continued embrace of white supremacy. Beneath the cover of reconciliation, white supremacy pushed hard to keep blacks and whites segregated—at odds, apart, and unequal, in much of the North as well as the South.
In 1910, when the U.S. Senate accepted a gift of a statue of Calhoun from South Carolina, it did so under the spell of reconciliation. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge of Massachusetts, a former Harvard history professor who opposed Calhoun’s views on slavery, gave a speech in which he sketched the Southerner’s lengthy and influential service—as a representative, secretary of war, vice president under John Quincy Adams and then under Andrew Jackson, senator, secretary of state, and then senator once more. Together with Massachusetts’s Senator Daniel Webster and Kentucky’s Senator Henry Clay, Calhoun made up a trio known as the Great Triumvirate because of their eminence and power. Sometimes regarded as more important than any president during their careers, these senators dominated American politics for two generations.