The Danger of Erasing Yale’s Confederate Ties

The elite university needs to address Calhoun College’s history without wiping out important educational opportunities.

Bob Child / AP

Recent events, from Ferguson to Charleston, make clear that America still struggles with racial injustice. So hats off to Yale University President Peter Salovey for welcoming the debate about the name of Calhoun College, a residential facility named in honor of John C. Calhoun, America’s most famous defender of slavery.

The issue here is as much about 20th century racial inequality at Yale as it is about Calhoun’s 19th-century commitment to slavery. The Yale Corporation named Calhoun College in 1933, generations after emancipation, suggesting the persistence and institutionalization of white supremacy in the United States, even in northern cities like New Haven.

Fifteen years ago, as a Yale graduate student focused on civil-rights history, I began a quixotic campaign to change the name of Calhoun College. But after teaching and writing about racial injustice, and serving as president of a college in Kentucky and now as president at the Associated Colleges of the South, I have altered my thinking: It is better to learn from the past than to erase it.

Wholesale “name-changing” in the form of erasure is bad history and, worse, it represents the forfeiture of an important educational opportunity. Teaching students about whatever structural racism continues to exist in America requires using every available artifact, including Calhoun College.

Until recently, Calhoun, who graduated from Yale in 1804, had escaped public scrutiny. Yet he did as much as any single person to propel the South toward secession, and was among those who created a version of states’ rights aimed primarily at protecting slaveholders and the institution of slavery in America. In a career that extended from the 12th Congress to the 31st, Calhoun served in the House of Representatives, as Secretary of War, and as vice president under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Aside from a brief stint as secretary of state in the mid-1840s, Calhoun spent the last two decades of his life in the United States Senate, convinced that, “Come what will, should it cost every drop of blood, and every cent of property, we [slave states] must defend ourselves.”

In 1933—exactly 100 years after Senator Calhoun led his native South Carolina through the Nullification Crisis—Yale received an extraordinarily large donation of $20 million from Edward S. Harkness (which, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, would be worth over $360 million today), enabling the university to construct seven dormitory clusters modeled after the colleges at Oxford and Cambridge. Yale President James Angell wanted to name some of the new colleges to honor esteemed graduates, but he admitted a fear of an “acute controversial atmosphere” in dealing with “contemporary affairs.” In essence, he suggested that controversy could be avoided through the use of historical figures; the further back in time, the better. A special “nomenclature committee” deliberated for more than a year as to who should be honored in the naming of these colleges. From 230 years of graduates, Yale selected only two: Jonathan Edwards and John C. Calhoun. As Carl A. Lohmann, then university secretary, explained, the two were “chosen to represent Yale’s most eminent graduate in the Church and Yale’s most eminent graduate in the field of Civil State.”

But why select Calhoun? Was the memory of William Howard Taft—a Yale alumnus from the class of 1878 and the only American to become both President of the United States and Chief Justice of the Supreme Court—more apt to generate controversy than the memory of a man whose political career was dedicated to militant defenses of nullification, states’ rights, and slavery? Yale offered no justification for honoring Calhoun. And maybe it didn’t have to. The naming of Calhoun College aroused very little controversy, on or off campus.

The myth of the “Lost Cause,” or what the southern novelist and former Yale student Robert Penn Warren termed the Great Alibi, romanticized the reasons for the Civil War and transformed the “rebel yell” into an underdog’s heroic cry. The same pattern of compromise that enabled Americans to live with slavery also allowed them to forget it. As W.E.B. Du Bois observed in Black Reconstruction in America, Americans “fell under the leadership of those who would compromise with truth in the past in order to make peace in the present and guide policy in the future.”

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.

Rather than erasing the past, why not use it? Honoring and remembering are not the same. The soul of a nation is rooted in memory. But memory, like history, is a complicated and fallible narrative, vulnerable to error and manipulation. History matters much less if only the good parts are remembered. In that vein, rather than changing the name of Calhoun College, the university should acknowledge the good and bad of history, and amend the name to Bouchet Calhoun College. In 1876, Edward Alexander Bouchet became the first African American to receive a doctorate in any subject from an American university, at Yale. Joining these two historical figures would stimulate a more honest and comprehensive discourse about American history.

Ultimately, colleges are obligated to honor the truth. The painful truth is that racial injustice existed throughout the 20th century and continues to exist today—and that should not be forgotten.