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New debate on Calhoun College, named for a white supremacist

As officials and citizens across the country question their governments’ display of Confederate symbols, some Yale alumni are renewing their challenge to the university’s most prominent link to slavery: Calhoun College.

“Why is a Yale college still named after John C. Calhoun?” asks writer Colin McEnroe ’76 in a Salon article.

“White supremacy never had a bigger, better friend in the US government” than Calhoun, McEnroe writes. The senator, vice president, and statesman, Yale class of 1804, was a fervent white supremacist who argued that slavery was “a great blessing” for both white and black Americans. McEnroe points out that Charleston, South Carolina—where an avowed white supremacist is charged with massacring nine African Americans at the historic Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church—also pays homage to Calhoun with a giant statue and the very name of the church’s street.

Yale’s decision to honor Calhoun came not during the pre–Civil War debate over slavery but long after the war, in 1931. In more recent decades, some students and alumni have called for changing the college’s name.

Jonathan Holloway ’95PhD, who teaches African American history and served as master of Calhoun, has argued otherwise.

The name should remain “as an open sore, frankly, for the very purpose of having conversations about this,” Holloway said last year. “I’ve seen too many instances where Americans have very happily allowed themselves to be amnesiac and changed the name of something and walked away.”

But those conversations are not, in fact, taking place, McEnroe points out.

“It’s not called Calhoun College So Let’s Talk About That,” he writes. “It’s called Calhoun College, and it’s an easy feat to spend four years at Yale without ever having one those ‘teachable moments’ about the background of the name.”

Holloway, who is now dean of Yale College, may be reconsidering. In a statement he sent to McEnroe this week, he wrote:

I’ve been opposed to changing the name of the college because I’ve felt that it absolves Yale from a terrible decision. I have to confess, however, that the events of the last 18 months and especially the monstrosity in Charleston have rattled me. Yes, the historian in me still sees with alarm our national propensity to forget ugliness for the convenience of the modern moment, but the citizen in me just keeps seeing example after example of an inability to imagine that African Americans have a humanity that ought to be respected.

Holloway couldn't be reached for further comment.

But other alumni had plenty to say on our Facebook page. Several readers suggest renaming Calhoun College for Kingman Brewster ’41, the Yale president who first admitted women and significant numbers of black students to Yale College, or for Edward Bouchet, class of 1874 and the first African American to earn a PhD. Other nominees include William Sloane Coffin Jr. ’49, ’56BDiv, the university chaplain and civil rights activist, and Charles T. Davis, who chaired Yale’s Afro-American Studies program and was the first black master of a residential college (Calhoun).

Not all of our Facebook commenters want to change the name. Elaine Lewinnek ’95, ’05PhD, echoes Holloway’s point about the “open sore” that must be addressed, adding: “we cannot erase every name at Yale associated with slavery.” (Many residential colleges and other university landmarks are named for Yale figures who were slave owners or slave traders.)

Jim Fink ’85, by contrast, defends John C. Calhoun as “a brilliant political theorist [who] deserves to be honored for that attribute.” And Stephen Hall ’63 asks whether Yale is “going to be like the Communists and the Taliban and ISIS who rewrite history and destroy artifacts that offend them.”

Asked about the university's position on the renewed debate, Yale spokeswoman Elizabeth Stauderman ’83, ’04MSL, commented by e-mail, The university welcomes engagement and discussion on this important topic: the tragedy in Charleston, on top of countless preceding tragedies in our country’s history, has elevated public opinion and discourse on difficult subjects that have too long been avoided.


The Yale Alumni Magazine is published by Yale Alumni Publications Inc., an alumni-based nonprofit that is not run by Yale University. Its content does not necessarily reflect the views of the university administration.

Filed under Calhoun College, John C. Calhoun, slavery


  • Thomas Maciolek, Calhoun '67
    Thomas Maciolek, Calhoun '67, 5:38pm June 26 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    When I was a freshman, an African-American student who lived in my entry told me that he was transferring to another residential college because of the stained-glass window in the Callhoun common room which depicted John C.Calhoun standing over a slave. I certainly understood and sympathized with his feelings, but I did not in turn petition for the removal of the window, and I understand that it is still there. That incident, including my inaction, informs me that it is disingenuous to suggest that we in this country, whatever our background or politics, have eradicated racism. I am glad, however, that recent tragic and unjust events have led to a dialogue about our racist heritage. I hope that we can all use these times as an opportunity for the establishment of empathy and amends.

  • Edward Joyner
    Edward Joyner, 9:17pm June 26 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    The logic behind keeping the name of John C. Calhoun on a Yale residential college escapes me. Why do we need an "open sore" as a reminder? Physicians at Yale Medical School would certainly note that an open sour exposes one to more infection. If it is an honor to have a building named after an individual, then Yale is honoring someone who would not have allowed Professor Holloway to be on the campus in a position other than as a hewer of wood or drawer of water. Replace the name Calhoun with Hitler or Custer and see how people would feel about that. Our symbols must reflect our creed, and if this is a great university, the name will come down.

    A middle school in Maryland was changed from Roger B. Taney to Thurgood Marshall. Is there a reason why we should not follow that example? Keeping Calhoun's name on a college, in a world class university, in a democratic republic based on self-evident truths about life, LIBERTY, and the pursuit of happiness, is neither intellectually or morally defensible. The forces behind the retention of the name continue to add insult to injury to a people whom America used all its institutions to oppress despite uncommon patriotism and devotion to American ideals. Shame on you for harboring a delusion that it is appropriate to have an avowed racist's name grace a building at Yale and in our city.

  • Michael C
    Michael C, 9:37am June 27 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    While we're at it, why don't we erase all references to Yale men who subjugated women and opposed giving them voting rights, dating back to 1700? Better still, why don't we insist on removing from Yale School the portrait of Bill Clinton, on the ground of his demonstrated record of sexually harassing women? Why should we have a womanizer gracing the walls over there?

  • Elaine Lewinnek
    Elaine Lewinnek, 10:31am June 27 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    What I want to see is not simply renaming, but rethinking. Twenty-first century Yale is becoming filled with people who would have shocked many of its 19th-century forebears. Let's continue that trajectory, let's rededicate Yale's resources to being open to the entire diverse range of people ready to learn what Yale has to teach. That is more important than renaming Calhoun, Morse, Berkeley, Silliman, and every other Yale landmark associated with pro-slavery forces. Although, yes, let's discuss those names too. But I think we learned in 1992 that simply removing an offensive stained-glass window is not enough.

  • Meg H
    Meg H, 9:48pm June 27 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Following on Edward Joyner:

    When my military family lived in Camp Springs, Maryland, my elder brother and sisters attended Taney Junior High.

    The full significance of changing the name from Roger B. Taney to Thurgood Marshall might be lost on some. Taney and Marshall were both Supreme Court justices, both from Maryland.

    The "open sore" argument doesn't sway me. I submit that consciousness would be better raised by looking among Yale alumni to find as exact an opposite number as did the Prince Georges County public school system when they rejected Taney in favor of Marshall.

  • C. Daniel Ward
    C. Daniel Ward, 5:33am June 29 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Time for Calhoun College to be renamed. Today's students should not be forced to live in a College with a name that honors an advocate of slavery. Moving to another college is not an acceptable option. Dan Ward 1955

  • Michael L. Lazare, '53
    Michael L. Lazare, '53, 11:27pm July 14 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    I've been pondering this for a while. John Calhoun's policies and his philosophy were heinous. But please examine Elihu Yale's tenure as British overlord in Madras. Shall we change the name of the University? How about Columbia University? Christopher Columbus's most significant actions upon arriving in the Caribbean were genocides of the most atrocious kind. Shall we rename the University in Morningside Heights King's College? Our past is tainted. Discussion and acknowledgment, in my opinion, far outweigh changing names, which I would consider a very self-righteous way of sweeping unpleasantness under the rug. By the way, the U.S. Vice President' official anthem is "Hail Columbia."

  • Stephen  W. Buck
    Stephen W. Buck, 11:44am September 17 2015 | Ico flag Flag as inappropriate

    Vice President or not, Calhoun's passionate defense and promotion of slavery are enough to justify changing the name of the college.
    College names at Yale should inspire, rather the celebrating a person who promoted an abominable system.

    That "Hounies" should have been proud of the name for so long without spending any time delving into what the man stood for speaks volumes. As does the fact, reported by the YAM, that for sixty years, till 1993, Calhoun proudly holding the chains to a shackled slave adorned a stained glass window looking down on the college's dining hall.

    Stephen W. Buck
    Yale '62

    Stephen W. Buck
    Co-Cor Sec class of '62

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