Names carved in stone

What's in a name? Potential for a good debate on honor and history.

Last week, three graduate students at Yale University in New Haven, Conn., released a report revealing the pro-slavery stance of some of the men whose names are carved into campus buildings.

They used primary documents to shine a light on parts of Yale's past they believe have been overshadowed during this year's 300th-anniversary celebrations, which have emphasized the school's abolitionist ties. As late as 1962, they report, a dorm was named after a pro-slavery figure.

"All universities across the country should research their history and help this country come to terms with its past," says Antony Dugdale, a co-author of the report, published by the nonprofit Amistad Committee Inc.

So, should the buildings be renamed, as some local activists suggest? Is alumnus John C. Calhoun, for example, worthy of honor for his service as a US congressman and vice president, despite his support of an institution that society has come to agree is abhorrent? That question came up in 1992 as well, when students at Yale's Calhoun College wanted it renamed. Instead, a framed poster was hung to note the controversy.

Whatever the response at a given school, new historical evidence enriches discussions of the whole process of choosing whom to honor, whether and when to apologize or make reparations for slavery, and how to move forward.

With schools so strapped for cash that they sell the rights to name labs and trees (see page 19), it's clear that generations from now, such debates will still rage. Inevitably, someone deemed worthy today will be tainted by a new values-standard tomorrow.


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