When a Yale University staffer shattered a stained-glass panel featuring slaves in the university’s Calhoun residential college, he wasn’t intentionally showing solidarity with student activists.
Corey Menafee, a dishwasher in Calhoun College’s dining hall—named after John C. Calhoun, the bigoted 19th century-statesman and Yale alumnus—was simply sick of seeing the “racist, very degrading” image every day, he told the New Haven Independent.
So, on June 13, he took matters into his own hands and smashed the glass with a broomstick. He has since apologized to the university and resigned from his job.
But several student activists have praised Menafee, arguing that if anyone should apologize it’s the university.
“Yale should pay his legal fees to compensate for the emotional distress their images evoke,” Austin Strayhorn, an upcoming sophomore at Yale, told The Daily Beast. “Imagine being reminded of your oppression day after day. He did what many of us have wanted to do but never had the courage to do.”
Brea Baker, a recent graduate (’16) and former president of the university’s NAACP chapter, echoed Strayhorn’s sentiments in an email to The Daily Beast.
“First and foremost, Yale must apologize to Corey Menafee and black workers who come in daily and are subject to such a hostile work environment,” she wrote. “What he did was a form of decolonizing Yale and his bravery must be commended.”
Menafee’s destructive act of defiance came two months after the university announced its decision to retain the name of Calhoun College, defying some 1,500 current and former students.
“Removing Calhoun’s name obscures the legacy of slavery rather than addressing it,” Yale President Peter Salovey said in a statement at the time. Student activists like Strayton and Baker were enraged.
“Students of color and our allies have been bleeding in front of Yale for YEARS,” Baker wrote in her email. “This year specifically we have very clearly expressed the very real psychological impacts of being forced to grapple with such symbols and images in such public spaces as dining halls and residential spaces.”
Responding to fervent student protests, the university in January removed three portraits of Calhoun from residential spaces, including one that hung in the dining hall.
In April, President Salovey announced an initiative to review the university’s history with regard to slavery, tasking the newly formed Committee on Art in Public Spaces to assess a series of contentious stained-glass panels and other art on campus, including the panel depicting slaves carrying cotton that Menafee later smashed.
Salovey also said the university was abolishing the “Master” title for residential faculty supervisors.
The Committee recommended in June that several stained-glass panels be removed and “conserved for future study and a possible contextual exhibition, and replaced with tinted glass for the time being,” the university said in a statement provided to The Daily Beast. “An artist specializing in stained glass will be commissioned to design new windows, with input from the Yale community, including students, on what should replace them.”
The Committee only arrived at this decision after Menafee took a broomstick to the image, expediting the process.
Another “suite of panels depicting aspects of John Calhoun’s life” is slated to be removed, the university said in a statement.
Regarding Menafee: "The university worked with his union to resolve this as compassionately as possible," the statement reads. Yale has requested that the State’s Attorney not press charges against Menafee, and the university is not seeking legal restitution.
In 1992, students successfully petitioned for the removal of a stained-glass panel featuring a shackled slave at Calhoun’s feet. The panel that Menafee shattered is believed to have been the only remaining visible reference to slavery at Calhoun College.
In an email to the community last week, Head of Calhoun College Julia Adams formally announced that the dining hall would be renamed in honor of Roosevelt Thompson, an alumnus who graduated from Yale in 1984. She also confirmed that other stained-glass panels referencing Calhoun’s legacy would be replaced.
Strayhorn told The Daily Beast he was pleased that Menafee is not being charged by the university, and that the steps the university has taken in deference to minority students are “good but not permanent solutions.”
When asked if the university’s response to student demands’ and the shattered panel incident were satisfactory, Baker was less forgiving.
“These are not panels depicting images of Calhoun’s life so much as they are panels depicting the exploitation and genocide of an entire group of people—a group of people I might add whose descendants are now educated here,” she wrote in an email. “Calhoun’s life was devoted to maintaining difference, inferiority/superiority binaries, and the breaking of black bodies. Any images depicting these facets of his life in an informal setting are promoting that.”
—with additional reporting by Amelia Warshaw.