Tobias Holden is a black student from South Carolina who was sick and tired of the adulation that John C. Calhoun – secretary of war under James Monroe, secretary of state under John Tyler, and Vice President under John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson – got in his home state of South Carolina. Calhoun, a South Carolina senator, has been honored throughout the years even though he was a known racist in his time… and ever since.
When Holden finally left South Carolina, he thought he’d escaped the man. Little did he know that Calhoun was also a Yale graduate; the college had named a building named after him. Holden had enough. This year, Holden helped catalyze protests at the university to appeal to the university to change the name of the building. Holden, writing in the New York Times described his work:
The sting of Calhoun’s name was part of a larger conversation. We demanded that Yale expand mental health resources for students of color. We also wanted the university to hire and give tenure to more people of color, offer better options when it came to ethnic studies and provide a place to report bias incidents. Racial sensitivity training, we argued, would go a long way toward protecting students of color from casual racism.
Yale President Peter Salovey announced today that the university would rename Calhoun College, one of 12 undergraduate residential colleges, to honor one of Yale’s most distinguished graduates, Grace Murray Hopper ’30 M.A., ’34 Ph.D., by renaming the college for her. Salovey made the decision with the university’s board of trustees — the Yale Corporation — at its most recent meeting. “The decision to change a college’s name is not one we take lightly, but John C. Calhoun’s legacy as a white supremacist and a national leader who passionately promoted slavery as a ‘positive good’ fundamentally conflicts with Yale’s mission and values,” Salovey said. “I have asked Jonathan Holloway, dean of Yale College, and Julia Adams, the head of Calhoun College, to determine when this change best can be put into effect.”
While I was at school, my grandmother sent me a recently uncovered family tree and oral history. It was compiled by one of my great-uncles for a 1990 family reunion, and it stretches back to the early 1800s, to a great-great-great-great-grandmother known as Grandma Nancy. She was born near the Fort Hill Plantation — now preserved on the campus of Clemson University. Her mother was a Cherokee slave named Liza Lee. Her father was John C. Calhoun.
I couldn’t make sense of it. I’d spent the past year and a half advocating the removal of my own ancestor’s legacy and I didn’t even know it.
Calhoun’s name on buildings reminds us that Calhoun was once honored for his perspective rather than derided for it. It is a reminder that evil once held sway in our world, and that we cherished it. It also reminds us that brilliance and patriotism and good and evil can all exist in the same human being: Calhoun’s slavery advocacy existed alongside his desire to build up a strong, robust American military; he created the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the same time that he stumped for the expansion of slavery into the Western states. One of the goals of chopping away at history is to simplify it into a simple battle between the good, who remain, and the evil, who are wiped away. But that’s not the way history works, nor is it the way politics works.
Clearly, John C. Calhoun wouldn’t be honored with a statue today; nobody is clamoring for a John C. Calhoun School of Law. But leaving his name on a building at Yale helps teach us how far we’ve come. More important, it recognizes that we must be ever wary of evil — that we shouldn’t be so benightedly complacent about our own moral standing, so confident that we would never make the moral errors of our forebears.