By 1933, the year Yale named Calhoun College, race relations in America were at a low. In the 20th century, insensitivity and hatred toward blacks became America’s lingua franca. Stamped as inferior, black people were expected to comply with a perverse “step-and-fetch-it” etiquette. A distorted image of blacks based on a song-and-dance routine, “Jumpin’ Jim Crow,” became synonymous with a codified system intended to segregate the races. Worse, not only did popular literature, minstrel acts, and vaudeville shows represent blacks as buffoons, films like Birth of a Nation incited whites to vigilantism. Membership in the Ku Klux Klan soared in the 1920s and remained strong until the Great Depression. Lynch mobs killed thousands of blacks. As historian Leon Litwack pointed out, “not even a liberal president, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was willing to endanger his southern white support by endorsing [anti-lynching] legislation,” which was consistently filibustered in the Senate.
The American historian Ulrich B. Phillips was a prominent member of Yale’s faculty during this period, writing positively about the plantation culture of the Old South in books like American Negro Slavery. By Phillips’s account, slavery was a benign if inefficient labor system that lifted blacks from the barbarism of Africa. It is thus no surprise that, while Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel Gone With the Wind lamented the loss of southern culture, the wind carried with it the horrible realities of slavery.
As a graduate student in history at Yale, I spoke at various venues, including Calhoun College, in an effort to change the name of the college. Ten years later, in 2013, the faculty at Kentucky’s Transylvania University, where I had become president, presented me with a curiously familiar resolution. They wanted me to change the name of Davis Hall, a dormitory built in 1963, right at the height of the civil-rights movement. Then, Transylvania had chosen to honor Confederate President Jefferson Davis, who attended the college for three years in the 1820s before receiving an appointment—from his mentor John C. Calhoun—to West Point.
During a faculty meeting, I recounted my experience at Yale and the evolution of my thinking on such matters. Despite the obvious contention surrounding the name, or indeed because of it, I encouraged the faculty to instead use Davis’s name to spark a series of campus conversations about racism in America and suggested that we celebrate the college’s 50 years of integration by bringing its first African American student (a teaching and practicing psychologist in Germany) back to campus, along with the two men responsible for funding her education.
The U.S. should own up to the past; see it for what it was, not brush it away. Most western observers have been horrified by the recent desecrations of ancient sites committed by ISIS, not so much because of what we know about those structures, but because of what they represent—an important connection to our collective history and a vehicle for understanding who we are. Destroying history, good or bad, keeps us from knowing ourselves.