Windows of opportunity

Two artists created a new iconography for Grace Hopper College.

The debate over the name of Calhoun College had been going on for years by June 13, 2016, when Corey Menafee, a Black dishwasher in the college, took a broomstick and shattered a stained-glass window in the dining hall that depicted enslaved people picking cotton. “It’s 2016,” he told the New Haven Independent. “I shouldn’t have to come to work and see things like that.”

Menafee acted just weeks after Yale announced that it would not change the name of the college, which had been named in 1931 for John C. Calhoun (1782–1850), a Yale alumnus, US senator, vice president, and tireless champion of slavery. (Menafee expressed regret and resigned after the incident, but was soon rehired by the university in a different job.)

It wasn’t the first time windows had been a battleground at Calhoun. In the 1990s, students objected to a window in the college’s common room that showed an enslaved person in chains kneeling at Calhoun’s feet. The college master had the image of the Black man removed from the panel—but kept Calhoun.

So when Yale reversed its decision in 2017 and renamed Calhoun for pioneering computer scientist Grace Hopper ’34PhD, a thorny question arose: what do we do with those windows? The altered panel in the common room was one of six in a bay window depicting Calhoun’s life; they were all removed. The dining hall featured three dozen panels with “romanticized images of antebellum southern life,” as Julia Adams, head of the college, puts it. Most are innocuous images of Southern flora, fauna, and architecture, but Adams and a college committee decided that six of them—including the one that Menafee had broken—needed to be removed, for assorted reasons. (All of the windows that were removed are now in the Yale Library’s Manuscripts and Archives department and are accessible to researchers.)

Another committee took on the task of commissioning new windows to replace those that had been removed. The committee quickly decided that the common room windows and the dining hall windows should be two separate commissions. After reviewing the work of more than 50 nominated artists, they chose two Black women: Faith Ringgold for the six common room windows and Barbara Earl Thomas for the dining hall.

The windows were installed in August and introduced to the Yale community at an open house on September 12. Adams says she’s “delighted” by the result and that the response has been “enormously positive.” Anoka Faruqee ’94, associate dean of the School of Art and chair of the committee that commissioned the windows, is also pleased. “Both sets of windows are really good examples of works that announce themselves but feel like they belong in the space,” she says.

When we went to press, there were still two missing pieces of Thomas’s commission: glass-and-metal portraits of Grace Hopper and of Roosevelt Thompson ’84, a Rhodes Scholar and alumnus of the college who died in a car crash in his senior year. (The dining hall was named in his honor in November 2016.) The portraits, which will rest in two empty niches in the dining hall, were to be installed this fall.

1 comment

  • Isabel Kraut
    Isabel Kraut, 9:41pm November 10 2022 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    This article made me really proud to be a Yale alumna. The sensitivity and thoughtfulness with which this change was made is inspiring. Thank you.

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