The first time I go inside Calhoun College, I am not thinking about the name. It is the second week of my freshman year, and my roommate and I are still giddy with excitement about being at Yale. We are nearing the end of a two-week challenge we set for ourselves: to get to know the campus by having a meal in each of the 12 residential-college dining halls. Calhoun’s has a cozy common room in front, two grand fireplaces bookending the bustling hall, and soft natural light streaming in through decorated stained glass. So far, Calhoun seems like it will be in the running for one of our favorite dining halls. Then I look up at the window.
The image that greets me is one that will go on to make headlines nearly two years later when a black dining-hall employee named Corey Menafee takes a broom to the window and shatters it into 27 pieces. When asked why he did it, Menafee will say to the New Haven Independent, “It’s 2016. I shouldn’t have to come to work and see things like that.” But it is 2014, during my second week at Yale, and the window is still intact. I am transfixed by what I see: two black figures, an enslaved man and woman—the only black woman I have seen depicted in art at Yale so far—with baskets on their heads, picking cotton. Other details of the room start to come into focus: the portrait of John C. Calhoun hanging over one mantel, the minstrel show–like image of a man in blackface eating a watermelon, the panels dedicated to South Carolina plantation scenery. I feel like crying or running away—doing anything besides eating lunch and chatting with my new roommate. I struggle through the meal and quietly promise myself to avoid Calhoun College as best I can for the next four years.
I did not end up keeping my promise. My sophomore year, Calhoun wove in and out of conversations with friends, in class, and even with people back home following the announcement by Yale’s president that the university would consider renaming Calhoun, in the aftermath of the massacre at Emanuel A.M.E. Church. I grew up in Charleston and attended elementary school directly across the street from Mother Emanuel, on Calhoun Street. It was coming of age in a historic city that taught me the importance of remembering the past. It was standing on Calhoun’s namesake street after the shooting, crying with family and strangers, that convinced me that what and whom we choose to memorialize from the past also serve as powerful symbols of the present.
After a year of community conversations and demonstrations, in May of 2016 Yale decided not to change the name of Calhoun. In the spring and summer after that announcement, columns chastised, letters pleaded, and the window in the dining hall depicting the two slaves was shattered. The decision turned out not to be final: In August, the Yale community received an e-mail from President Salovey saying that a committee would be convened to create standards for renaming buildings, standards that would be applied to a revisited case for renaming Calhoun College. There was one spot on the committee for an undergraduate. I applied, and just before my junior year began, my non-engagement pact with Calhoun definitively ended.