Conversations about Calhoun College open with look at the history behind the name

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Professor David Blight gave a brief overview of John C. Calhoun's life and talked about the meaning of Confederate symbols at a master's tea in Calhoun College. (Photo by Román Castellanos-Monfil)

“Calhoun College: What’s in a Name?” — the first in a series of events about whether the college should be renamed due to its namesake’s fierce pro-slavery stance — took place on Sept. 9 at a tea hosted by Calhoun College Master Julia Adams.

The discussion is part of an effort by Yale to address the name of the college in the wake of the Charleston shooting this past June. The murder of nine African Americans resulted in a nationwide debate over Confederate symbols and their legacy.

Calhoun College is named after John C. Calhoun, a graduate of the Yale College Class of 1804 and a famed defender of slavery. At this year’s freshman assembly, President Salovey announced the start of a campus-wide “open conversation” about the name and what it represents.

At the tea, history professor David Blight explored the meaning of Confederate symbols and the renaming of the college.

Blight began by asking students and community members to take a step back and consider the context of the conversation.

“Before whatever Yale does in deciding to do with this 82-year-old name on this college; before either erasure, replacement, augmentation, or reinvigoration of this name takes place; before whatever level of remembering or forgetting is enacted about this issue, my tiny modest proposal is that you or we ought to learn something about the person, the persuasions, the history represented in this name,” he said.

He gave a brief overview of Calhoun’s life and his views, noting that he was an accomplished statesman who served as secretary of war and vice-president. The impact Calhoun had on U.S. politics is still felt today and that is worth considering, said Blight.

Ultimately, Blight declined to take a stance on the issue, instead choosing to outline the impact the shooting at Charleston had on our understanding of memorialization and symbols.

“What Charleston did, it forced us to at some point ask and answer where we draw the line,” he said. “Where do you draw your line of what’s an acceptable symbol, an acceptable memorial, an acceptable name, an acceptable monument, an acceptable representation of the past? When are you comfortable? What do you accept and tolerate and what do you not?”

He also warned against the erasure of the name, remarking that Fredrick Douglass continually used Calhoun in his speeches as a symbol for slavery and white supremacy. Calhoun Associate Master Hans van Dijk, however, viewed erasure as the best option.

“To some of us,” he explained, “the naming of the college in 1933 is an abomination. It was a scandalous mistake; it should never have happened. And today, because of horrendous tragic circumstances, here we sit having this discussion, and it’s time to correct the mistake.”

Some students in the audience suggested framing the conversation around the college not as a memorial to Calhoun but as a home to students, noting the irony that Calhoun would have “detested the kind of community that is under his name now.” An alumnus present added that “our memories are going to exist in an emotional, historical cul-de-sac if it all changes. I’ve been a ‘Hounie for a lot of years already: it means something to me.”

Adams also commented on the Calhoun community, saying, “I think this also stems from the actions of generations of ‘Hounies and masters, especially Dean Holloway. There was so much work around signifying ‘Hounidom,’ ‘Hounielove’ in ironic, almost Hufflepuffian ways, which were themselves a commentary on Calhoun and alternative traditions. However, alternative traditions that exist within larger, problematical traditions can also be wiped away when there are great changes. It doesn’t nullify the beauty of the alternative traditions, but it remains problematic.”

Another student saw problems with arguments in favor of keeping the name as a reminder of Yale’s past, arguing instead that, “If historians are so intent on using the name of a college as a namesake, as a monument, then let it be to someone who did good and who will spark more modern conversations.”

Blight argued that, “the past should really trouble us. I don’t want the past to ever make us feel good.” He concluded by challenging attendees to question what is worth remembering and why certain events are remembered, noting: “One person’s erasure is another person’s discovery and one person’s discovery is another person’s erasure.”

Members of the Yale community are invited to submit their thoughts through an online form.

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