It is a hot September Friday in New Haven. Traffic crawls down the steaming pavement and clogs the intersection of College and Elm. Students enter and exit a large stone building, passing the plaque where its name is usually denoted. Some stop and double-take; some ignore; fewer flinch. Scrawled on a slim piece of silver tape, above the word “College,” is the name “Saddam Hussein.”
When the traffic light turns red, a group shuffles across the street, holding a long, horizontal orange sign. They spread the banner from sidewalk to sidewalk, their heads just clearing the top. It is slightly transparent, and when the sunlight hits the thin fabric, the protestors’ bodies are silhouetted behind four thinly drawn words: “Yale: #CHANGE THE NAME!”
The people behind the weekly protests and the duct-taped dictators—meant as a challenge to Yale; you wouldn’t name a college after Saddam Hussein, would you?— are a coalition of New Haven community activists and Yale students. They share a common goal: to compel the Yale administration to change the name of Calhoun College. They will stand on College and Elm every Friday at noon, rain or shine, until the university complies.
These activists aren’t strangers to Yale issues, nor to protesting: many of them are organizers with Unidad Latina en Accióon, a grassroots group that advocates for human rights in New Haven, and has fought with the university on labor rights and union regulations. And the name they’re protesting is no stranger to controversy: John C. Calhoun was one of the South’s most vocal proponents of slavery, and the decision to honor his name on a Yale residential college has been a point of contention for years. Last semester, the contention hit its most contentious.
In an Apr. 27 email to the Yale community, after two tumultuous semesters of open letters, town hall meetings, and sustained protests, President Salovey announced that Yale would change the term “Master” to “Head of College,” while reaffirming the university’s commitment to preserving the name Calhoun. Instead of removing art that memorialized John C. Calhoun’s racist past, Salovey implemented a Committee on Art in Public Spaces to reevaluate it.
The decision to keep the name Calhoun came as a frustrating end-of-year blow to students and faculty, many of whom had sent in or expressed recommendations to the contrary. The administration insisted that logistics dictated the late release of the decision, but some students who spoke to the Yale Daily News in the spring suspected that the administration’s decision to release the statement in late April was strategic—it caught student activists at the stressful end of the semester, and gave them less time to organize.
At that point, reading period had started, which gave way to finals period, and soon most students were headed out of New Haven for the summer. The word “Master” was quietly stripped from walls, deleted from email signatures, and removed from plaques. Quieter still, the name “Calhoun” remained.
But on June 13, Corey Menafee, a dishwasher for Calhoun College, mounted a table in the Calhoun dining hall with a broom in his hands. We do not know if the handle was plastic or wood; how clammy the palms were that held it or how hot with rage; how weighty the thin rod felt when he lifted it over his head. We only know that with a few upward thrusts, Menafee had knocked a stained glass window depicting racist imagery to the ground, and reopened a conversation that had seemed, if not closed, paused.
Until that moment, the issue of naming on college campuses had seemed relegated to an elite sphere: people at a selective university, debating behind closed doors as the world watched, or didn’t.
It wasn’t the act of breaking the window that was significant. It was who broke it, and who noticed.
The window in question sat for years on the far right wall of Calhoun dining hall, within sight of the small dishroom where Menafee spent most of the workday. Framed to the left by a rabbit and to the fight by two birds, this particular window depicted two slaves standing side by side, balancing large bales of cotton atop their heads. Someone meant for it to be beautiful, once—from inside the dining hall, sun would dapple in through the tinted glass, washing students in the blue of the frame and the lighter blues of the cotton; the ochres of the wheat and the rose of the woman’s basket. At the right angle, the light could simulate a beauty incongruous with the violent past the window represented.
In smashing it, Menafee made legible the violence within. Later, he would describe the image as “primitive” and “degrading.” “I believe one of the figures were actually smiling, which is so condescending, because looking back on slavery, it wasn’t a happy time for African Americans,” he told reporters in a Democracy Now interview.
Menafee’s spontaneous act was met with swift consequences. Hours after he damaged the pane, the New Haven police arrested him at Yale’s behest. He was charged with second degree reckless endangerment and first degree criminal mischief—a felony— and deemed a danger to students. On June 21, Menafee resigned.
Menafee’s case might have flown under the radar, if Paul Bass, the editor of the New Haven Independent, had not received a tip concerning the incident in early July. On July 11, the Independent broke the story with an article bearing the headline: “Worker Smashes ‘Racist’ Panel, Loses Job.” Within hours, news had spread.
The case was an immediate outrage, said Kica Matos, the Director of Immigrant Rights and Racial Justice at the Center for Community Change. She didn’t conceive of it simply as an issue that pitted New Haven against Yale. Rather, it was about the inequalities inherent in the criminal justice system; about the mass incarceration of young black men. It was about a vulnerable person victimized by a system stacked against him. “Yet another African American man from New Haven facing potential felony charges, for speaking out on something that bothered him and his conscience,” recalled Matos. “In its face, it was so egregious.”
For Katherine Dembey, LAW ’16, Menafee’s case was particularly powerful based on her experience with the New Haven courts. “You know, there are so many stories like this—someone facing a felony charge for something he shouldn’t have been facing a felony charge for.” As a lawyer, there’s something sort of intangible that compels Dembey to want to be there for every criminal defendant facing unjust charges.
While Menafee’s arrest situates him in a broader narrative of national injustice, the specifics of his case soon became particularly upsetting in a city whose residents are primarily people of color, for whom the story seemed to confirm assumptions of the university’s inherent racism.
“Many residents were not aware of how offensive and widespread the glorification of slavery was [at Yale] until they saw those images in the New Haven Independent. People were horrified,” said Matos, referring to Menafee’s window and the others that lined the Calhoun dining hall until earlier this month. “We see glorification of John Calhoun, we see happy slaves picking cotton, we see a minstrel who is playing the banjo… It’s straight up propaganda.”
Matos spoke to Paul Bass to determine the dates of Menafee’s trial, and quickly reached out to New Haven non-profit groups like New Haven Family Alliance and Unidad Latina en Accióon to begin organizing alongside the Center for Community Change. Dembey attended with fellow law students. Dr. Briallan Hopper, a Lecturer in English active in faculty advocacy around renaming, joined her, along with other faculty members. A New Haven philanthropist arrived to act as Menafee’s pro-bono lawyer. In total, 50 friends and fellow dining hall workers; reporters and photographers; students and staff came to support or document the scene.
Menafee had no phone and no way of knowing how much attention his case had received, so when he arrived in court he seemed shocked at the turn-out.
“Menafee’s case brought together groups who have all different concerns: about workers’ rights, criminal justice, Yale University’s racism and lack of concern for students and workers and faculty of color,” said Dembey. “I think it touches on a lot of issues in the New Haven community, not just Yale.” Matos agreed: “To me, what’s striking about this particular coalition is that this is the first time in 15 years that there’s been such a broad cross-section of engagement.”
David Yaffe-Belaney, CC ’19, one of three Yale students interning at the Independent who broke the story, said the afternoon was “surreal.” “It was like a courthouse scene that you might see on TV, with reporters and cameramen gathered on the courthouse steps,” he recalled. National media had swarmed Yale’s campus last semester, following the looming grey clouds of massive controversy; now, some were back to cover a community court case.
When Corey Menafee approached the judge’s bench that afternoon, he was informed that Yale had asked for the charges to be dropped. But before that, the university had one request: they wanted their 27 shards of glass back. The judge was unmoved, recalled Dr. Hopper. “He said, ‘Yale can wait for its broken glass, and I hope it doesn’t put the pieces back together again.’”
The judge’s Humpty-Dumpty-inspired pronouncement turned out to be prophetic. After leaving the crowded courthouse scene, activists continued to rally, streaming out the door together, gathering on the courthouse steps, and laying the foundation for what would become the first protests that summer outside Calhoun. Bianca Brooks, a Columbia student studying in New Haven in July, created a GoFundMe to raise money for Menafee’s court fees. Yale students shared the page; strangers donated hundreds of dollars and shared words of support. “On behalf of dishwashers of the 90’s, THANK YOU!” read Omar Ford’s enthusiastic comment. Jenny Lumet’s dropped like a rock and sank: “My family was owned by the family of John C Calhoun. They owned us. And we are still here…For those who can’t grasp that it was real flesh and bone and real human beings… we are still here.”
On July 14, President Salovey finally emailed the Yale community to address Menafee’s actions. He described the situation as “regrettable for all concerned,” explaining that all charges had been dismissed, and that Yale would be seeking no restitutions for damage caused. On Aug. 1, Yale announced the creation of the Committee to Establish Principles for Renaming, a group of faculty and students that would develop “clearly delineated principles to guide the university’s decisions on proposals to remove a historical name” in the future. And when students arrived back on campus, the offending windows were taken down, replaced by amber-tinted panes.
But at the moment the first shards scattered, their sharp edges had embedded themselves into the fabric of the city; and by the time Menafee stood in that New Haven courtroom, it was already too late to pick them all out. The window was gone, but left in its wake was a new coalition of activists dedicated to affecting change at the university. Yale’s problem of naming and history and legacy had suddenly transcended the university sphere to become not just a student problem, but a New Haven one.
John Lugo stands in front of the crowd gathered at the New Haven People’s Center on Sept. 12 and gestures at the room with his black whiteboard marker, speaking in rapid Spanish. He’s running down a list of actions ULA has planned for the week. On one of the walls behind him is a poster honoring “America’s Labor Heritage”; on another is a picture of Rosa Parks. The activists seated around him on metal chairs slowly raise their hands, volunteering their time; their voices.
“Atticus, Thai Taste,” he writes on the board—wage theft. “NHPD”—tomorrow, 5pm, police protest. When he says the word “policía,” a baby begins to wail, and everyone chuckles. She already gets it.
Lugo is the co-founder of ULA, and has been organizing the group around labor and civil rights issues since 2002. After supporting Menafee at the courthouse and subsequent rallies, he and his colleague, Megan Fountain, continued leading the Friday afternoon protests. “When the students are gone, we will be left to suffer,” he said. “We felt like it was time to engage.”
In the fall, student responses to issues of race and inclusion were instrumental in propelling university-wide change. Formal demands from student organizations catalyzed administrative commitments to increase funding for cultural houses, create new systems for reporting discrimination, and renew emphasis on hiring faculty of color. In the spring, attention shifted slightly to focus on the issue of naming and of visual representations of slavery in campus art.
In October, a protest organized by a local anti-racism group, the Answer Coalition, called on Yale to change the name of Calhoun College. But besides their 20-member demonstration, the issue of naming, especially, seemed to exist outside the purview of New Haven organizers. From the sidewalk outside Calhoun, it’s hard to make out the images that decorate the dining hall windows. And from the street, it’s hard to distinguish this stone building from any of the other imposing grey towers that tower above. It follows, then, that the students inside were again the ones having most of the conversations. New Haven activists were watching, said Matos, and hesitating to engage.
After the news of Menafee’s arrest broke, however, Matos wrote an opinion article in the Independent titled “Windows on a Shameful Past.” In it, she argued that Yale’s refusal to rename the college and take down the windows was a direct affront to the New Haven community. “Those who live and work at Calhoun are the ones who most strongly feel the effects of this, a shrine to a white supremacist and a celebration of slavery,” she wrote.“But the building—and Yale University—are not an isolated island. They are located in this city, our city. A city whose population is majority people of color.”
There is a false dichotomy embedded in this statement, however: setting up a divide between those who work at Yale and those who live in New Haven. Menafee, who grew up in New Haven and has worked at Yale since 2007, filled both those categories.
To Craig Wilder, an MIT professor and author of Ebony and Ivy, a non-fiction account of the relationship between institutions of higher education and slavery, the most disturbing implication was that too many people seemed to be relatively comfortable with the idea of having anyone work in front of images of plantation slavery. “We are coworkers, at least in theory,” he said, referring to the faculty and administration who stayed silent as dining hall staff endured.
Yale is not the Vatican. It has built moats and walls, and it has marked its distinct boundaries, but it occupies New Haven land, and its decisions affect New Haven residents—those who work on campus, and off.
There is a false sense of divide between the campuses of elite universities and the people who live in the surrounding areas, argued Wilder. “As elite universities become wealthier and more privileged, that divide has taken on its own logic,” he said. “It’s rarely challenged, we rarely have to think about it that much. It’s just imposed—it’s just there.”
At Yale, this divide has existed for decades. Lugo moved to New Haven in the 90s, and said he stayed in the city primarily to campaign against Yale’s property tax-free status. “A lot of people feel it’s not right to have the poorest city with the richest university,” he said. The comparison Lugo draws is hyperbolic, but not entirely baseless.
New Haven has a poverty rate of 26.4%. Yale University has an endowment of $23 billion. This inequality is reflected in the outsize influence the university has on everything from the physical and social geography of the city (the construction of Pauli Murray and Benjamin Franklin Colleges will contribute to shifting neighborhood demographics and rising property taxes) to the economic stability of its citizens (Yale is the biggest employer of New Haven residents, providing 4,000 jobs as of August 2015).
“The bottom line is, the university has a big footprint,” said Diana Valeta. On Friday afternoon, she is seated in front of the entrance to Calhoun in a red folding chair, a sign resting on her shins that reads: “Yale: Stop Insulting Our Community.” Cee Jay, a New Haven activist wearing a “Black Lives Matter” t-shirt, nods in assent, adding, “They don’t even pay taxes!” “I didn’t even realize!” Valeta exclaims. “That’s the community’s money!”
In March, the university opposed legislation that would tax the university endowment on certain academic facilities, a bill that would have brought in much-needed additional revenue. The university does pay $4.5 million in property taxes, however, as well as an annual voluntary payment of $8.2 million.
Matos believes that under the current administration, Yale-New Haven associations have deteriorated. “There’s tension between legislators and university leadership about taxation issues; tension between university and labor over upcoming contracts; there’s every number of issues that you can read about in the paper on any given day,” she listed. “Yale just happens to have relocated in New Haven. We all feel that Yale has a responsibility to the city.”
Thomas Conroy, Director of the Office of Public Affairs & Communications, did not address the assertion that relations were worsening, but acknowledged that “New Haven residents are going to express themselves about many aspects of Yale, and Yale is going to remain a place that wants to work with the city to mutual benefit, and listen to what its citizens have to say about the University.”
Standing on the corner of College and Elm on Friday, citizens are saying what they have to say, loudly. “Yale brings us racist shame. Change…the…name!”
Within the naming controversy, citizens have found an entry-point into discussing broader issues inherent to the complicated town-gown relationship—an economic tension that activists say is ultimately grounded in a racial one.
“You have to look for the opportunities to bring the issues that matter into public light and seize the moment when people are paying attention,” said Wilder.
“In a broad sense, the protests are about racial injustice and Yale, and in a broad sense, New Haven-Yale relations are about racial injustice and Yale,” said Hopper.
“It has to do with relationships between property and people, and what’s more important.”
Menafee’s case illustrates just how these uneven power dynamics can manifest: An African American employee is forced to work in degrading conditions for a predominately white institution. When he fights back, he’s threatened with imprisonment. The act of destroying university property could have lead to the destruction of a man’s life.
“Calhoun does not deserve his fame. Change… the… name!” Ian Valeta, Diana’s son and a thirteen-year-old student at a New Haven high school, plays a somber EFF#F on his alto sax, following the protestors’ rhythm. He can’t join the chant with a reed in his mouth, but he nods along. Cars rubberneck; drivers crane their necks. One yells “A racist!” in assent.
On either side of the street, two Yale students, Caroline Kuritzkes, ES ’18, and Mojique Tyler, ES ’19, pass out flyers emblazoned with John C. Calhoun’s almost comically gruesome visage and wild hair. At the bottom of each page is the same note: “The New Haven community unites today to tell Yale that enough is enough.”
It seems significant that the message of the New Haven community is being disseminated to passersby from the hands of Yale students. Perhaps it means a bridge is being crossed; that lines between student and citizen are being blurred.
This is not the first time students and activists have rallied around a common cause. When news surfaced of wage theft at Gourmet Heaven in Feb. 2014, student social justice groups helped organize protests, and undergraduate journalists extensively covered the demonstrations and eventual dismantling of the deli. When a young black man was killed by a police officer, Yale students linked arms with New Haven Black Lives Matter activists in a human chain to the court house. When Next Yale organized a town hall to discuss issues of race on campus, UNITE HERE’s Locals 34 and 35 and the graduate student union showed up—together, they presented a united front in opposing Yale’s “endowment hoarding.”
Still, said Matos, “One critique you hear often from advocates in the city is that Yale students make no effort or very little effort to truly engage the residents in issues that matter as much to students as they do to the city. Students act as though they are not a part of the city—but it goes both ways. There are a set of issues students should care about that are city-based issues, and vice versa.”
Elisia Ceballo-Countryman, CC ’18, says she came to Yale freshman year hoping to engage closely with the New Haven community, but soon found that it was hard enough to keep her head above water on campus. “Yale itself creates this bubble—I mean it’s hard to even get around New Haven; there’s no ‘here’s how the buses work,’” she said.
Entities like Dwight Hall, the Center for Public Service and Social Justice, aim to get students involved in New Haven through community service efforts. Programs like the President’s Public Service Fellowship encourage students to stay in New Haven over the summer, and partnerships with homeless shelters, food banks, and local schools connect Yale students directly to the city.
But, said Ceballo-Countryman, service is not enough to connect the sometimes disparate experiences of Yale students and community members. “There’s a lot of talk about Yalies helping the poor,” she said. “But not Yalies learning from this amazing city we’re in.”
“Because of wealth of the universities and because of the collective wealth of undergraduate populations, we’ve become more remote from the people who live right next to us than we ever have before,” said Wilder. “The demographics of black students have shifted dramatically in the past quarter century, too—they’re more economically, and nationally, more diverse. Universities need to make more opportunities for all students to engage.”
Tyler, who is positioned at the southern corner of Elm Street on Friday, became involved with both campus activism and ULA last year as a freshman. Before Yale, they were involved with New York City activism, where they learned the value in doing things for the community, by the community. “Service is like… Here’s this thing Yale has, let’s give it to you,” they said.
Ceballo-Countryman said that the African American Cultural House used to be a hub for New Haven/Yale interaction, but that the relationship eroded during Dean Rodney Cohen’s regime. In March, 2015, Cohen was removed from his position after a petition with 147 signatures called for his removal. He was replaced by Risë Nelson, who is committed to reestablishing community ties because, when she was an undergraduate here, her own interaction with New Haven came through the house.
Wilder suggested that engagement can also start in the classroom. “A lot of our students are going to take example from administration and faculty—if they have a three dimensional and respectful relationship with [the city and its residents], it’s more likely that our undergrads will develop similar relationships,” he said. “We have to take a lot of the responsibility for the tone and the texture of our conversations.”
The nature of the relationship between Yale students and community activists is important not only because it can work to bolster town-gown relations, but because their coalition has strategic value.
While student activists on campus last semester were dogged in their fight for issues of racial justice, the responsibility of juggling student life and activist life was exhausting. In a personal essay written for The Yale Herald on Apr. 29, Olivia Klevorn expressed a feeling shared by many students by the end of the semester. “I deserve to not have to walk down the street every day and see honorifics dedicated men who believed I was not a human but a tool for profit. I am tired. I am exhausted. Fatigued,” she wrote. “Please understand that writing this is labor. Please, please, please do not make me write it again.”
Matos and the colleagues she collaborated with this summer are full-time social justice advocates, who are able to more fully dedicate their time to the fight. “We don’t have to go back to our jobs, because this is our job,” she said. “I’m not going anywhere.”
Instead of cycling in and out of the community every four years, as most undergraduates do, New Haven residents stay put. “One of the frustrations around organization on campus is that there’s always the expectation that students will graduate and move on. The ability to organize depends on student’s strategic planning, and commitment to continuity and legacy,” said Matos.
And while students often go home in the winter and summer, New Haven activists are able to maintain a consistent presence. “The best tools the University has is the fact of the school year breaks,” said Ceballo-Countryman. “Students are indebted to New Haven activists for carrying on this summer.”
That’s not to discount the work students did last semester, and continue to do. “I feel very strongly that the wrong way to look at the situation is that [New Haven residents] are ‘grown up professional activists’ and Yale students are just students figuring things out,” insisted Hopper. “What Yale students have been able to do is just extraordinary, and had an impact all over the world.”
“There’s also something to be said about fresh energy and youthful energy,” said Matos. “I’ve seen unprecedented levels of commitment [from Yale students].” She hopes that energy can translate into more coalition building—into Yale students getting more involved in New Haven issues, and vice versa.
When Yale hired Ernesto Zedillo, the former President of Mexico, to direct the Jackson Institute for Global Affairs, ULA attempted to rally student support in protesting the appointment. “He’s a war criminal!” Lugo explained. They didn’t have luck engaging students last year, but he hopes for reciprocity in future efforts. Of course, he said, he’d be out here protesting either way.
The Calhoun stained glass windows have been a focus of student protests since the 1990s. After student unrest in 1992, actions were taken to remove one particularly offensive panel depicting a slave kneeling at John C. Calhoun’s feet— even then, while the slave was omitted, Calhoun stayed, presiding over the dining hall for decades. So the administration’s reimagining of the Calhoun dining hall this summer came as a surprise.
When Ceballo-Countryman heard that the windows were coming down, “It was like, fuckin’ Christmas,” she said. “I’ve been screaming about the one stained glass for a solid year but every time I said it people were like, what? [Menafee] made the presence of the glass known—it became not just about the name, but what the college stands for.” Last fall, students’ protests and marches and lists of demands
were effective catalysts for change; this summer, a broom handle was. The 12 o’clock protests, too, are “a brilliant tactic,” said Ceballo-Countryman. The activists are breaking no laws; they’re perfectly positioned for photo opportunities; they get face time with New Haven residents walking near the green or driving through campus, as well as with Yale students, staff, and faculty. Besides, “waking up every Friday to chanting of Hey Hey, Ho Ho, Calhoun has got to go… it’s an experience,” she said. She expects that soon, students will start to complain. “It feels like you’re in a cultural war-zone when you’re living there.” Ceballo-Countryman moved off campus this year. “Something that’s been profound about the kinds of protests…has been the level
of creativity we’ve seen,” said Hopper. Multiple driving agents resulted in multiple methods: symbolic renaming ceremonies; acts of civil disobedience; protests; flyers; chants. No one strategy exists in a vacuum, and it’s hard to say which—if any—will be the one that turns Yale’s hand.
The windows in the dining hall have come down, but the name remains.
On Aug. 1, President Salovey announced the Committee to Establish Principles on Renaming. In an email to the Yale community, he wrote that, though he remains “deeply committed to our obligation to confront this country’s—and our university’s— past, including historical currents of exclusion and racism,” he admitted that campus conversations could have been bolstered by more expert input. “In particular,” he wrote, “we would have benefited from a set of well-articulated guiding principles
according to which a historical name might be removed or changed.” Though the announcement came after the New Haven protests started, it is unlikely that the two are correlated. To be able to launch a committee of 12 members on August 1, 20 days after the Menafee news broke, suggests preliminary actions had been taken earlier in the summer. The committee was formed to establish guidelines, not implement change. They are focused on the intellectual principles of the matter of naming, and will not be making decisions on individual buildings. And though the representatives span disciplines, ages, races, genders, and departments, and include two students who are women of color, none of the participants is a non-Yale affiliated community member.
The difficulty of finding a solution to the naming debate has been well-documented. But Wilder suggested that universities should take the voices in the communities that surround them into consideration. “Universities have been very bad at thinking about engaging the public in a meaningful way,” he said. He paused, then amended his statement.
In 2013, The University of Virginia instated a President’s Commission on Slavery in the University, to investigate the university’s historic relationship with slave labor. The Commission began by reaching out to its surrounding community—including the African American community—living in Charlottesville, and held events in historically black churches and community institutions off campus to make it clear that the university was not only inviting the community into the conversation, but would also go out into the community themselves. The College of William and Mary, too, engages citizens of Williamsburg in workshops through the Lemon Project, their version of UVA’s commission.
And earlier this year, Georgetown University made a radical step to atone for their past, giving a better chance at admission to students who descended from the 272 slaves off of whom the university once profited.
Georgetown has been criticized for this move—by some for doing too much, by others for doing too little—but that’s part of the process, insists Wilder. Engaging with the past involves dialogue that involves criticism, and, ultimately, emotion. “Whatever happens at Georgetown, the lesson we should take is that universities have an obligation to deal directly and honestly with their own past, no matter how troubling that past might be,” he said. “Allowing fear of consequences is cowardly and anti-intellectual.”
Yesterday, on Sept. 15, Yale announced a symposium called “What’s in a Name? The Naming and Symbolism Controversy on University Campuses,” to be held on Sept. 26.
The community is invited. Admission is free.