The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Confederate controversy heads north to Yale and John C. Calhoun

Yale University’s Calhoun College in 2007. (Bob Child/AP)

They’re trying to remove it from South Carolina’s State House. They’re trying to take it off General Lee of “The Dukes of Hazzard.” They’re even trying to erase it from NASCAR.

Debate is still raging over the propriety of flying the Confederate battle flag after last month’s shooting at a black church by an alleged white supremacist in Charleston, S.C. And as that debate continues, other Southern figures are being drawn in — even ones who didn’t survive to see the South secede.

The latest target: John C. Calhoun, U.S. senator from South Carolina and vice president under Presidents John Quincy Adams and Andrew Jackson. Calhoun’s name adorns a residential college at Yale University. And though the Confederacy didn’t exactly capture the imagination of New Haven, Conn., — and Calhoun, who died in 1850, didn’t serve among the men in gray — some want his name off.

“Like the official display of the Confederate flag in South Carolina, Calhoun College represents an indifference to centuries of pain and suffering among the black population,” a petition circulating online for Yale students and alumni reads. “It conveys disrespect toward black perspectives, and serves a barrier toward racial inclusiveness. Calhoun College will always preclude minority students from feeling truly at home at Yale.”

[Nearly 200 schools are named for Confederate leaders. Is it time to rename them?]

Do not doubt: Calhoun was indeed a racist.

“A mysterious providence had brought the black and the white people together from different parts of the globe, and no human power could now separate them,” he said in a speech against deporting slaves to colonies in 1837. “The Whites are an European race being masters, and the blacks are the inferior race and slaves. He believed that they could exist among us peaceably enough, if undisturbed, for all time.”

But is extending the “de-Confederatization” of the United States to those who lived and died before the Civil War necessary? Some think so.

“John C. Calhoun, for whom the college is named, was respected during his time as an extraordinary American statesman,” the petition read. “But he was also one of the most prolific defenders of slavery and white supremacy in American history. At a time when many of his southern colleagues viewed slavery as a necessary evil, Calhoun infamously defended the institution as ‘a positive good.’ His legacy is built on his vociferous defense of a state’s right to enslave blacks.”

More than 1,200 people had signed the petition by early Monday. For its part, Yale welcomed the debate.

“The tragedy in Charleston, on top of countless preceding tragedies in our country’s history, has elevated public opinion and discourse on difficult subjects that have too long been avoided,” Yale spokesman Karen Peart told the Associated Press.

This is not the first time since Charleston’s shooting last month that Calhoun has come under fire. A statue of the Southern leader was defaced with the word “racist” days after Dylann Roof stormed Emanuel AME, allegedly killing nine.

One academic said that memorials honoring figures like Calhoun are no longer relevant.

“For sure, African-Americans knew that these people were who they were, but they were really powerless to do anything,” David Glassberg, a University of Massachusetts professor who has researched public memorials, told the AP. “These traditions represent the traditions of past people.”

But at least one Yale graduate said changing the name would do little to change the underlying problem.

“Removing a name, removing a symbol is easy and we can say, ‘problem solved,'” Temple University professor Christopher Rabb — a black 1992 Yale graduate who lived in Calhoun, himself at the center of a controversy over removing an image of the senator lording over a black man in chains from campus — told the AP. “But we’re dealing with a symbol and we’re not dealing with the root cause. And the root cause is systemic racism.”

As Calhoun faces a possible day of reckoning in New Haven, some are urging the removal of the names of other Southern and Confederate figures from streets and schools across the nation, including Northern Virginia’s Jefferson Davis Highway and Washington-Lee High School. Meanwhile, Alaska Gov. Bill Walker (I) told U.S. Census Bureau he will change the name of a census district named for Confederate military leader Wade Hampton.

“That original name had no connection to the culture or history of Alaska and its people,” a spokesman for the governor said, as Alaska Public Media reported. “… Governor Walker felt it was only appropriate that Alaska’s place names reflect and respect the diversity of our great state.”