Campaign to Change Yale University College Pro-Slavery Namesake Gains Momentum

Posted Nov. 2, 2016

MP3 Interview with Corey Menafee, Yale University dining hall worker, conducted by Melinda Tuhus


Last July a Yale University dining hall worker smashed a window depicting slaves harvesting cotton in the residential college where he worked, declaring he was tired of seeing the "extremely degrading" image. The name of that residential college – Yale's equivalent of a dormitory – is Calhoun, named for John C. Calhoun, a U.S. senator from South Carolina and later vice president of the U.S. who was one of the South's strongest proponents of slavery and white supremacy. Calhoun was also a Yale graduate.

Corey Menafee is the worker who broke the window. He was arrested and resigned from Yale under pressure, but, with strident community support, charges were dropped and he was rehired to work in a different dining hall. Students had been conducting a powerful effort the previous year to pressure the Yale administration to change the name of Calhoun College. Last April, Yale President Peter Salovey announced that the name would remain – as a way of raising awareness and confronting the racist legacy of the school.

Student and community efforts have continued under the slogan, #ChangeTheName, and on Oct. 28, the largest community-based demonstration to date took place as 200 people marched through downtown New Haven and ended on a plaza in front of Yale’s president's office, where they attempted to deliver a letter to Salovey. When protesters were told he wasn't available, they vowed to return. Between The Lines’ Melinda Tuhus spoke with Corey Menafee, who attended the rally on his lunch break. Here, he explains why he chose to break the window at Calhoun College and what he thinks should happen now.

COREY MENAFEE: The window was brought to my attention maybe a week before. I had been working there about six months, but I never paid it any attention, partly because I’m supposed to wear prescription glasses and I don’t wear them. So, and the window was kind of high, and it’s a dull window. I never paid attention to it until it was pointed out to me by an alum, believe it or not. It wasn’t something that I was consciously planning on doing; it was just something that sat uneasy with me, and over time it evolved into my actions.

BETWEEN THE LINES: So tell us what you did. This was a high-up window, so how did you break it?

COREY MENAFEE: I’m not allowed to speak about that particular incident any more.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Okay, okay. So, there was a lot of movement among students for some period of time to change the name of Calhoun College, and your action really I think jump-started a community response. There was a lot of support for you in court, and you did get reinstated. And now this rally, a few hundred people at it, marching around downtown and standing outside President Salovey’s office talking about the need to change the name. How does that feel to you?

COREY MENAFEE: It feels good. It feels great to know that others share my sentiment and the dislike not only for the image I broke but the name John Calhoun hanging over a college, you know, that is such a contradiction, because John Calhoun wasn’t about enlightening or uplifting anybody. He was about keeping people down and exploiting them. So that’s why we’re here; we want that name removed from the college.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What’s been the response of your co-workers, or maybe your new co-workers at the new residential college that you’re working at now?

COREY MENAFEE: Well, the response has been pretty much positive. A lot of people support what I did. A lot of people commend me for having the guts to do what I did. I just feel like the name John C. Calhoun needs to be abolished from Yale University.

BETWEEN THE LINES: What do you think about the people – and I know there are at least some African Americans who I’ve read believe this – that Yale should not change the name because that’s rewriting history and the fact that he was the person he was is a way of educating people about slavery and white supremacy. What do you think about that argument?

COREY MENAFEE: I think that argument is weak. I think most people are hiding behind the fact that…the man was a racist. That was his legacy – racism. Racism is not acceptable or tolerable in our society today. It has no place anywhere. Every now and then you hear about a famous someone losing their job for saying racist comments or being filmed doing racist things. So, it’s very intolerable and it’s unacceptable. If you want to teach history, fine. There’s no problem teaching history in a classroom setting, but you don’t want to hang that name as a banner over a college; I don’t believe so.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Because just by the fact that it’s there, that’s honoring the person, right?

COREY MENAFEE: Yeah, you’re honoring someone whose legacy is literally putting others down, and there’s no place for that in modern society. Those are primitive thoughts to enslave a group of people. We’re in a modern era, and there’s no place for that.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Yale has a committee. Correct me if I’m wrong; I think it was after you broke the window and were arrested and all that. Yale set up a naming committee or a renaming committee to make rules about how to rename things on campus. And after they make their guidelines, then they’re going to visit Calhoun, I guess. What do you think about that approach?

COREY MENAFEE: Well, just what you said: we guess. Nothing’s been confirmed by any official office that there will be a change. All we know is a committee’s been formed to decide what the guidelines and principles will be if, or when, they decide to rename anything. So that remains to be seen.

BETWEEN THE LINES: Corey Menafee, do you have any suggestions about what the name should be changed to?

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