Why is Yale so reluctant to remove Calhoun’s name?

Is it because of an abiding fondness for Calhoun?  No that couldn’t be it.  Yale is a bastion of liberalism and would be happy to denounce him.  Is it out of respect for history?  I don’t think that’s it either…

Yale doesn’t want to open the book on revisionist naming, because it draws attention to the fact that the College is named after Elihu Yale, who participated in the slave trade.

Here he is below.  Do you notice anything unusual about the picture?  Do you see the person on the left with a letter that the original listing calls a “servant”?ag-obj-663-001-pub-large

That is a slave wearing a metal collar.

Here is another, with him seated in the middle.  Note the “page” in the background.ag-obj-52745-001-pub-large

She is wearing something too.

Pretty disgusting, isn’t it?  You see Yale was involved in the slave trade.  He wasn’t sailing the ships back and forth, but he oversaw it as an overseer  for the East India Company.  He was certainly complicit in the slave trade however, and certainly choose to have slaves portrayed in his own portraits as a symbol of his status.  source

So you can see why they don’t want to open this door in the first place, because taking down Calhoun’s name leads directly to the questioning of the name of Yale itself.


As a person from the South, I have grappled with the issue of a shadowed heritage all of my life.  As a young man examining my family history, I saw how many of my ancestors died fighting for the Confederacy, and to tell you the truth I felt mixed emotions.  Pride that they were noble and fought in war when called, but embarrassed that they’d done it for the Confederacy.  The war was in fact over the right of people’s ability to own slaves, and these guys fought in it.  That makes them complicit, right?

A more sober view has developed over time.  As a more mature adult, I took a much more thorough eye to my ancestry.  Reading their wills, and lists of property, I have come to find that to my knowledge only one of my ancestors owned slaves, and he in fact was rather notoriously murdered by a slave named Jerry for taking liberties with Jerry’s wife.  Not our proudest moment in early family history by any stretch of the imagination. source

That being said, after that guy, nada.  All those latter ancestors, the ones that died in the war of the States, they didn’t own any slaves.  They were poor farmers that had to fight.  Rich guys could pay someone else to go for them, but they had no choice in the matter.  Whether they agreed with succession or not, they were at war with the North and that was their reality.

So why should I, a guy who has only one known ancestor to own slaves, who was in fact killed by a slave, feel bad about historical slavery or lingering racism?  The answer is that I shouldn’t.  I had nothing to do with it.  I should have my eyes open to that context, and I should be aware of the ramifications of slavery that still echo today, but I shouldn’t be caring around guilt or feeling ashamed.  I’ve made peace with my ancestry, both the good parts and the darker ones, and it frees me up to truly experience the present.

In the same way, Yale shouldn’t be renaming it’s buildings.  The reality is, these people formed the institution as it stands today, and no matter how uncomfortable we may be with parts of the past, this reality has to be faced.  Because while what we are is simply the sum of our history and out of our control, it is who we are that defines us, and that we do control.