'That Thing's Coming Down Today'

Amia Srinivasan · Trouble at Yale

John C. Calhoun, without a shackled black slave at his feet.

When I started my freshman year at Yale, in 2003, Locals 34 and 35 – the unions that represent Yale’s clerical, maintenance, custodial and food service workers – were on strike. As I moved into my dorm on Old Campus, I crossed a picket line. We all did. Some workers held up signs saying: ‘You should have gone to Harvard.’ There were no meals served in the dining halls; Yale gave us cash to eat out. Each morning we were woken up by chanting outside our neo-neo-Gothic windows: ‘What do we want? A CONTRACT! When do we want it? NOW!’ Early on we were addressed by the undergraduate dean, who cautioned us (after some stirring words about our being the best and the brightest) not to be in any rush to take sides on the current labour dispute – we had plenty of time, four blissful years, to think and reflect. It is widely recognised that Yale, the biggest employer in New Haven, Connecticut (the poorest city in the richest state) has the worst labour relations of any major university in the US; this strike was the eighth since 1968. Some freshmen ignored the dean’s advice and joined the strike, but the general mood, I remember, was one of entitled disgruntlement. Eventually a contract was agreed, the workers went back to work, and we started eating our meals in the dining halls.

For me that meant walking a few hundred metres from Old Campus, where most freshmen live, to Calhoun, the residential college to which I had been randomly assigned. (The option to choose one’s college was abolished in 1962, as self-selection quickly resulted in a division between rich and ‘scholarship’ colleges.) The Calhoun dining hall was then known more for its mediocre food than for its stained-glass windows depicting scenes of happy slaves working on plantations. Founded in 1933, the college was named after John C. Calhoun, a Yale graduate who served as senator of South Carolina and vice-president of the US. He is famous primarily as a white supremacist and intellectual architect of Southern secession: he argued that slavery, rather than being a ‘necessary evil’ (as most Southern politicians had it), was a ‘positive good’. (Yale wasn’t alone in deciding that Calhoun’s record merited memorialisation; in 1957, a committee headed by John F. Kennedy named Calhoun one of five ‘outstanding’ historical senators.) One of the original dining hall windows depicted Calhoun with a shackled black slave kneeling at his feet; after a student campaign in the 1990s the slave was replaced with plain glass, though the rest of the windows were left untouched.

Last month, Corey Menafee, who had worked in the dining hall for eight years, climbed onto a table and used a broom handle to smash a panel picturing two slaves with bushels of cotton. While Yale agreed not to seek restitution for the window provided he offer his resignation, Menafee was arrested by the police on two criminal charges. After an outcry from the Yale community, the university put in a request that the charges be dropped, and has offered him ‘a position in a different setting’. Menafee explained: ‘It’s 2016, I shouldn’t have to come to work and see things like that. I just said, “That thing’s coming down today. I’m tired of it.”’ Yale has since announced that the Calhoun slavery panels will be taken down and ‘conserved for future study and a possible contextual exhibition’.

These events follow a year-long student-led campaign to change the name of Calhoun College. In April, Yale President Peter Salovey announced that the college’s name would be preserved ‘to confront, teach and learn from the history of slavery in the United States’. Some Yale students may need that lesson. But it’s less clear that Yale’s largely black workforce, which cooks for and cleans up after Yale’s largely white student population, needs it as well.


  • 21 July 2016 at 3:47pm
    mauisurfer says:
    "in 1957, a committee headed by John F. Kennedy Jr. named Calhoun one of five ‘outstanding’ historical senators."
    interesting, JFK Jr was born in 1960
    "The option to choose one’s college was abolished in 1962, as self-selection quickly resulted in a division between rich and ‘scholarship’ colleges."
    interesting, there was no such option in 1957-61 when i was there
    it had been abolished long before
    it was indeed abolished, but not for rich/poor, rather because it was thought that diversity was a good thing, that engineers and liberal arts majors should live together, eat together

  • 21 July 2016 at 8:51pm
    William Wood says:
    It would have been difficult for 'John F. Kennedy Jr.' to name Calhoun as an outstanding senator as he was not born till 1960.

    • 22 July 2016 at 3:29pm
      Deborah Friedell says: @ William Wood
      You're quite right: thank you.

    • 22 July 2016 at 4:05pm
      Timothy Rogers says: @ Deborah Friedell
      I assume the blog site's editors removed the "Jr." because it's not there today - they should have spared the author this embarrassment in the first place.

      That aside, there is the tricky question of how institutions should deal with major historical figures who have a mixed record of achievements and views (some admirable, some detestable).

      Calhoun is certainly such a person - rather than "outstanding senator", he's better characterized as a major statesman and political figure of the 1810-1850s era. Twice Secretary of War, twice vice-president (working under J. Q. Adams and A. Jackson), the only VP to resign (over a matter of principle, at that), congressman, and senator. He was the political and intellectual leader of that major faction in American politics that was both pro-slavery and pros-states'-rights.

      His championship of slavery is repugnant today, and rightly so. On the other hand, as a major figure of his era, he was bound to be memorialized throughout the south (and at Yale). It would be unwise to destroy all vestiges of this particular historical memory. In this specific case (dining-hall and worker politics) wisdom and decency seem to demand the removal of the stain-glass windows depicting slavery as a happy state of submission yet retaining his name for the dining hall due to his position as a very prominent graduate of the university.

  • 22 July 2016 at 8:18am
    RobotBoy says:
    The identity-politics crowd offers symbolic change in place of actual change and feels quite satisfied with itself. Support a woman for president, because she's a woman! Get rid of those racist panels! But when it comes to providing better wages for African-Americans or improving the lives of poor women, they're nowhere around

    • 22 July 2016 at 9:43am
      Ubique says: @ RobotBoy
      One imagines Mr Menafee might not view his arrest as "symbolic change". Seems rather concrete to me.

      We need more Corey Menafees.

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