Glenda Gilmore chides Yale for deciding to keep the name of Calhoun

Historians in the News
tags: Yale, Calhoun



Glenda Elizabeth Gilmore, a professor of history, African-American studies and American studies at Yale, is the author of “Defying Dixie: The Radical Roots of Civil Rights.”

Yale made a grievous mistake this week when it announced that it would keep the name of an avowed white supremacist, John C. Calhoun, on a residential college, despite decades of vigorous alumni and student protests. The decision to name residential colleges for Benjamin Franklin and Anna Pauline Murray, a black civil rights activist, does nothing to redeem this wrong.

It is not a just compromise to split the difference between Calhoun and Murray; there should be no compromise between such stark contrasts in values. The decision to retain the Calhoun name continues the pain inflicted every day on students who live in a dormitory named for a man distinguished by being one of the country’s most egregious racists.

To be sure, there’s something noteworthy about the contrast between these two figures who now sit across campus from each other. Although they lived in different centuries, Calhoun in the 19th, and Murray in the 20th, in many ways, she lived in — and fought against — the world that he built.

Calhoun, a Yale graduate, congressman and the seventh vice president of the United States, owned dozens of slaves in Fort Hill, S.C. Murray grew up in poverty in Durham, N. C., as the granddaughter of an enslaved woman. Calhoun championed slavery as a “positive good”; Murray’s great-grandmother was raped by her slave master. Calhoun profited immensely from the labor of the enslaved people on his plantation; Murray was a radical labor activist in Harlem during the Great Depression.

Calhoun perverted constitutional principles when he shaped a states’ rights doctrine that precipitated the Civil War and set in place a 90-year legal justification for segregation and disfranchisement. Murray fought for four decades against the regime that Calhoun authorized and published “States’ Laws on Race and Color,” the first comprehensive survey of segregation statutes across the nation. Calhoun was a patriarch who whipped his slave Aleck for offending Mrs. Calhoun; Murray was a gay woman who became a founder of the National Organization for Women. ...




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