In the debate underway at Yale University over whether a residential community should continue to bear the name of John C. Calhoun, the fraught question is not simply whether to banish the current title but what to put in its place.
The matter has taken on new urgency — at Yale and nationally — after student protest last fall cast a harsh light on the university’s racial climate, epitomized for some by Calhoun College, named in the 1930s for the 1804 graduate of Yale College who provided much of the intellectual foundation for the Confederacy.
The decisions about the name ultimately belong to the Yale Corp., the university’s governing body, which this week held “listening sessions” to gather community input on Calhoun, as well as names for the two new residential colleges scheduled to open in 2017.
The effort to develop alternative names has been geared toward finding someone whose achievements are as widely acclaimed as Calhoun’s are abhorred. Some see renaming the college for Frederick Douglass, who was self-taught and did not attend Yale, as the ultimate rebuke of Calhoun’s defense of slavery as a “positive good.”
Others say honoring Cole Porter, a 1913 Yale graduate, would elevate achievements in the arts that are as enchanting as Calhoun’s views were repugnant.
Further options include trailblazing black graduates, such as Edward Bouchet, the first black person to earn a PhD at an American university, and Jane Bolin, the first black woman to graduate from Yale Law School and later the first black woman to serve as a judge in this country.
There has been a surge of interest this week, however, in renaming the college after a Yale graduate who did not go on to topple barriers in any field — not in politics, not in the law, not in the arts. Many are writing to university officials asking that the college be rededicated to Roosevelt “Rosey” Thompson, who died at age 22, in an auto accident on his way back to Yale after spring break. It happened March 22, 1984, two months before Thompson’s graduation.
His story offers new insight into the symbolic freight of names and titles, particularly at institutions of higher education, and on the competing values at stake in paying tribute to certain lives.
“I was stunned,” said Augie Rivera Jr., who was Thompson’s roommate for three years, recounting how he learned of his friend’s death. “Those of us who knew Rosey lurched and limped through the rest of the semester.”
Thompson hailed from Little Rock, Ark., where he attended Little Rock Central High School, the location of the famous showdown over school integration in 1957. Former president Bill Clinton, for whom Thompson had interned in the governor’s office in Little Rock, is said to have cried at his funeral.
In a documentary titled “Looking for Rosey,” then-Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, currently a Democratic candidate for president, said Thompson was “truly one of the most remarkable human beings I have ever, ever known.”
Though Thompson did not trumpet his own ambitions, former friends and classmates said, many assumed he would eventually be elected the first black governor of Arkansas and ultimately ascend to federal office, perhaps even to the presidency of the United States.
Thompson played offensive lineman on the Yale football team and headed the Calhoun College student council.
It was at a meeting of the council that Thompson celebrated his final birthday, a fellow senior at the time, Larry Lawrence, said, recalling sharing a cake in the shape of the state of Arkansas with his former classmate in the living room of the Calhoun master’s house. Thompson would have been 54 on Thursday, an occasion not lost on students organizing to see his name replace Calhoun’s; they toasted him in the college on Thursday night.
By all accounts, Thompson was a model student, elected to Phi Beta Kappa in his junior year and the recipient of Yale’s Hart Lyman Prize, awarded to a junior for character and achievement. His service spanned Yale and New Haven. He was a freshman counselor, helping new students become acclimated to campus, and also worked at New Haven City Hall and tutored in the public schools. Thompson won a Rhodes Scholarship for study at Oxford University in the fall of his senior year.
Alex Zhang, a Calhoun sophomore whose column in the Yale Daily News advocating for Thompson College ignited a groundswell of support for the idea, said there is value in renaming the college for someone whose chief accomplishment was being a good student and a good steward of his college community.
It would send a message, Zhang said, urging students “not only to be the best public servants, scholars and community leaders they can be, but also to live every day knowing that their lives are full of possibility.”
Elisia Ceballo-Countryman, also a sophomore in Calhoun, boasts a unique connection to Thompson’s legacy: he was her mother’s freshman counselor, and Ceballo-Countryman said she grew up associating Yale and Calhoun with the memory of Thompson.
This, for her, is the answer to the problem of erasing history, one that she said has dogged her despite her aversion to her college’s current name.
In her view, Thompson carried within him the vexed history of Calhoun College. “He was a Calhoun student. He was a Hounie,” she said, using a common nickname for students in Calhoun.
Rivera said Thompson, who was black, did not express feelings of dissonance in living in a residential community named for a man who denigrated his race. And when Thompson died, and seniors began discussing the idea of renaming the college for him, the motivation was not to remove Calhoun’s name but to honor their late classmate, Lawrence said.
“At that time, frankly, there was not moral outrage at the college being named for John C. Calhoun,” Lawrence said. “He was considered an extremely unseemly character who did not represent Yale’s values, but it was a historical reminder.”
A desire to preserve history remains at the heart of arguments in favor of preserving Calhoun’s name.
Still, Cole Aronson, a Calhoun sophomore who is against the change out of a deference to tradition, allowed that he could get behind Thompson College, in recognition of Thompson’s remarkable Yale career.
It was only recently that the change seemed plausible, Lawrence said, as national events, including the widespread repudiation of the Confederate battle flag last summer, and protest last fall at Yale raised new questions about Calhoun College.
“We know that Rosey’s name has remained on the list for the last few years, but it’s just since last fall that things began to pick up steam,” said Lawrence, who has served as a class secretary and a board member of the Association of Yale Alumni and has been active in encouraging the university to consider Thompson as a namesake. “He’s very much under consideration. We believe that some student support has put a real upswing in that possibility.”
At a meeting Thursday afternoon with Margaret Marshall, a retired chief justice of the Massachusetts Supreme court and the senior fellow of the Yale Corp., and Eve Hart Rice, an alumni fellow on the corporation, students in Calhoun came with roses to signal their support for “Rosey,” or Thompson College. The meeting was limited to Calhoun students and was closed to the media. But several attendees described a clear consensus favoring Thompson as a replacement for Calhoun. At a wider meeting Thursday evening, Thompson seemed similarly dominant, though several speakers mentioned other options, including Douglass and Porter, according to attendees.
Marshall would not describe where the Corporation currently stands on the matter, nor would she say when the body will reach its decision.
Jonathan Holloway, who is the first black dean of Yale College, professed to having “no idea” what the corporation will decide. A scholar of African American history and a former master of Calhoun, Holloway has spoken forcefully about the value of confronting the past, even when it is ugly, but has recently hewed to a more neutral position.
When it comes to college names in general, he said, the corporation has suggested it will limit itself to people who are no longer living and who had a Yale affiliation.
Holloway said the idea of renaming the college for someone who died at age 22 presents a whole new set of questions.
One the one hand, he said, there is elegance in recognizing “the astonishing promise of a Yale education.”
On the other hand, there is the nagging question: “Was it a life fully lived?”
“It does stand apart in that way, which makes it interesting,” Holloway said. “It doesn’t make it a slam dunk in any sort of way, but it’s a different idea, isn’t it? And for me that made me pause, like, ‘well, that’s a new one.’ ”