John C. Calhoun was a U.S. Vice President who once called slavery a ‘positive good.’ Throughout his career, he ardently fought for slave state’s rights, claiming slavery benefited everyone. Hailed as the south’s political and intellectual leader, Calhoun was a U.S. Vice President twice over, secretary of state, secretary of war, a U.S. Senator, with a residential college named after him at Yale.
As of this week though, that last part will change.
Yale announced that it will be changing the name of Calhoun College – one of 12 residential colleges on site – instead, renaming it after mathematician Grace Murray Hopper.
Yale President Peter Salovey said, “We have a strong presumption against renaming buildings on this campus. I have been concerned all along and remain concerned that we don’t do things that erase history. So renamings are going to be exceptional.”
This is a sizable understatement. Yale has literally ignored the voices of its student population protesting this building since it opened in 1933.
The college, adorned with stained glass depictions of slaves carrying bales of cotton, was referenced to as ‘Calhoun plantation’ on campus in the building’s early years, and was met with strong opposition. Yet it wasn’t until the last few years that these demonstrations grabbed nation-wide attention. Starting in 2015, students, faculty, and alumni began to gain traction in their objection of the name. Then, a Yale employee, Corey Menafee broke the stained glass portrait of two slaves in protest. He was hailed by students through a series of marches and protests as a civil rights champion, revoked of call charges, and given his job back. Still in April of last year, Yale refused to change the name of Calhoun College.
Yet finally, under continued pressure, media attention, and of course – with large consideration from all the right people in all the permissible places – Yale finally made the decision to change the college’s name.
“The decision… is not one we take lightly,” Salovey said. “But John C. Calhoun’s legacy as a white supremacist and a national leader who passionately promoted slavery as a ‘positive good’ fundamentally conflicts with Yale’s mission and values.”
Well there. Was that so hard to say after all?
This week, Salovey encouraged students to embrace Calhoun’s replacement, Grace Murray Hopper. A mathematician, computer scientists, and a U.S. Navy admiral, Hopper was an all around boss. She received both a masters, and PhD from Yale in 1934 in mathematical physics, and is considered to be one of the first three modern programmers. Not only that, but Hopper was a trailblazer who played an incredibly important role in developing the modern day computer.
Hopper’s career path closely followed that of WWII and the Cold War. When WWII initially broke out she tried to join the Navy, but was rejected due to her gender and small stature. Nevertheless, #ShePersisted, and was eventually placed in a role where she would closely compute rocket trajectories of U.S. strikes.
Post military and academia, Hopper moved into the private sector. There she developed the first computer language, which eventually made it possible to write programs for several machines instead of just one computer. Hopper was also cited as the person most important to the success of the adoption and integration of COBL (“common business-oriented language”), which is how our computers can ‘talk’ to one another. Hopper was excellent communications strategist and wrote the world’s first ever computer manual.
Although age restrictions officially forced Hopper to retire from the navy at the age of 66, she was called back in seven months later to help the military branch standardize their computers across their south-east asian expansion. She stayed on for 19 years as a reservist. Hopper was awarded the Presidential Medal of Honor by Barack Obama (posthumously).
“I’ve always been more interested in the future than in the past.” – Grace Hopper
— Programming Wisdom (@CodeWisdom) February 13, 2017
Great news that Yale will remove the name of a white supremacist, replace it with one of the female GIANTS of compute science, Grace Hopper https://t.co/Uc0rvQZuAS — Alexis Goldstein (@alexisgoldstein) February 11, 2017
— John Preskill (@preskill) February 11, 2017
Both students and those online were elated to hear the news. Rianna Johnson-Levy, a senior from Ann Arbor Michigan and who was involved in the protests stated, “Students of color have been fighting for this change for decades and it’s hard to believe this day is finally here.”
“This victory happened because of the courage of community leaders, faith-based leaders, faculty, city residents, and students who came together to seek change,” says Chris Rabb, a 1992 graduate who successfully petitioned to have a stained glass portrait of a Black man in shackles kneeling in front of Calhoun taken down.
Still others feel like there are more pressing racial issues on Yale’s campus that need to be addressed, and are excited to continue to push forward on initiatives like a 3 percent proportion of Black faculty members. In the words of Grace Hopper, “Humans are allergic to change. They love to say, ‘We’ve always done it this way.’ I try to fight that.”