There’s been ongoing debate on university campuses about whether the names of slaveowners and white supremacists should be removed from college buildings. It’s a conversation that pits those concerned over campus climates for students of color against the views of some historians and administrators, some of whom say that it’s not appropriate to remove the names of historical figures from college grounds.
At Yale University, for example, administrators recently changed the title of “master” of a college or “head” of a college, after students expressed concerns over the name being too attached to slavery, but did not submit to calls to rename a residential building called Calhoun College. Students were upset that Calhoun, a fierce opponent of the abolition of slaves who called slavery a “positive good,” would continue to have his name displayed at the college.
At an education summit on Wednesday hosted by the Atlantic, administrators and faculty were supportive of students’ motivations to make their campuses more welcoming to students of color by reconsidering buildings that honor white supremacists and slaveowners. Yale University professor Alicia Schmidt Camacho pointed out that some of the debate over the historical context is misplaced, arguing that having a building named after Calhoun was never a benign recognition of an important political figure in U.S. history.
Schmidt Camacho — who teaches American studies, ethnicity, and race and migration and is the associate head of Ezra Stiles College — said the intentions behind naming the college after Calhoun should be more closely examined.
“The building was built it in the 1930s. It wasn’t built during the slave era when Calhoun was respected and his perspective and vision was normalized,” she said. “It was named in the ’30s in a moment of increased xenophobia, racism, and anti-black violence as a gesture of support toward the most ardent segregationists in that history, so students have never sat well with that name. So this is one iteration in a number of things and what we are seeing students say is shouldn’t these institutions reflect the work we do?”
The dynamics at play in Yale’s decision to name the college after Calhoun were outlined in a article released by the Atlantic last fall. Yale historian David Blight explained that in the spirit of reconciliation, the history of slavery and the continued trampling of black Americans’ rights and economic opportunities were shoved aside, and the Civil War was recast as a “quarrel that got out of of hand.” The decision to rename a college after Calhoun was both a nod to his place in the college’s history as “the most famous statesman that Yale had produced” and a “a kind of Southern victory in the long struggle over Civil War memory” Judith Schiff, Yale’s Chief Archivist explained to Yale alumni, the Atlantic reported.
After Protests, Yale University Gets Rid Of ‘Master’ Title, But Keeps Name Of White SupremacistEducation CREDIT: Bob Child, AP Yale University announced Wednesday that it would eliminate the title of “master” for…thinkprogress.orgYale College Dean Jonathan Holloway, a former master of Calhoun College, told Yale Daily News that he would like to see Yale keep “enduring the burden” of its decision to name the college after an unabashed white supremacist and said Yale could use the decision to shut down uncomfortable conversations in the future. Universities aren’t the only institutions grappling with the possible name changes.
This dynamic isn’t limited to Yale, or even college campuses. High schools named after Confederate heroes have also recently faced calls for name changes — especially since some of those schools opened not long after the U.S. Supreme Court ordered desegregation of schools, and choosing those names was a specific effort to rebel against those changes.
It’s a conversation that will only become more relevant as time goes on and schools become increasingly diverse.
This is much more than a complaint or concern of being marginalized.
“The number of these so-called minority students are rising faster than any other population,” Schmidt Camacho said. “So this is much more than a complaint or concern of being marginalized. What they are bringing us is a vision of what this potential is, what is the potential that lies in a four-year institution based in residential systems where people from all over the world, people from all different backgrounds live together, study together, and do all kinds of activities and have meaningful community engagement?”
More administrators are coming around to this point of view. Ben Sifuentes-Jauregui, vice chancellor for academic affairs at Rutgers University, who also spoke at this week’s summit, said that he first doubted the question of whether renaming buildings was the best course of action. But after listening to students, he understands why it’s important to them.
“Initially, if I may bring up the example of when students wanted names of building changed, my first instinct was, ‘Oh guys, stop fighting with the ghosts, right?” Sifuentes-Jauregui said. “But as I listened carefully, I began to hear that these students were not fighting with ghosts — they were talking about their present circumstances. These kids were insisting on being given an appropriate space like anybody else to explain and to talk about their experiences.”
“While tradition is very important, when we have a large group of people, we have to think about what they’re trying to do to move knowledge forward and come up with new traditions,” he added.