Recently Yale University caved to student demands to rename one of their dozen residence buildings. The Calhoun Building was named after Yale graduate John C. Calhoun, who was John Tyler's secretary of state, James Monroe's secretary of war, John Quincy Adams' and Andrew Jackson's vice president, a South Carolina senator, and avid pro-slavery zealot. Yes, he was known to be a racist back then and now, but only in 2017 was the building renamed after a student outcry.
One black student from South Carolina, Tobias Holden, described his advocacy for the name change in the New York Times:
The sting of Calhoun’s name was part of a larger conversation. We demanded that Yale expand mental health resources for students of color. We also wanted the university to hire and give tenure to more people of color, offer better options when it came to ethnic studies and provide a place to report bias incidents. Racial sensitivity training, we argued, would go a long way toward protecting students of color from casual racism.
While I was at school, my grandmother sent me a recently uncovered family tree and oral history. It was compiled by one of my great-uncles for a 1990 family reunion, and it stretches back to the early 1800s, to a great-great-great-great-grandmother known as Grandma Nancy. She was born near the Fort Hill Plantation — now preserved on the campus of Clemson University. Her mother was a Cherokee slave named Liza Lee. Her father was John C. Calhoun.
I couldn’t make sense of it. I’d spent the past year and a half advocating the removal of my own ancestor’s legacy and I didn’t even know it.
Calhoun’s name on buildings reminds us that Calhoun was once honored for his perspective rather than derided for it. It is a reminder that evil once held sway in our world, and that we cherished it. It also reminds us that brilliance and patriotism and good and evil can all exist in the same human being: Calhoun’s slavery advocacy existed alongside his desire to build up a strong, robust American military; he created the Bureau of Indian Affairs at the same time that he stumped for the expansion of slavery into the Western states. One of the goals of chopping away at history is to simplify it into a simple battle between the good, who remain, and the evil, who are wiped away. But that’s not the way history works, nor is it the way politics works.