On October 28 hundreds of Yale students and people from the community stood on the New Haven Green opposite a Yale University residential college that has been called “Calhoun College” since the 1930s. They chanted “Change the Name” and “Take Down the Racist Window Panes” and marched to Woodbridge Hall, which houses offices of the Yale Corporation and its top administrators.
Calls to change the name have gone on for years ever since disgruntled New Haven unions sponsored a website exploring the university’s deep ties to slavery. The Calhoun in question is John C. Calhoun, Yale grad, U.S. two term vice-president and one of the foremost defenders of slavery in pre-Civil War America. He was notorious for calling slavery a “positive good,”
One of the speakers at the rally was Travis Harden, a Lakota-Hochunk, who currently resides at Standing Rock. He was in Connecticut after taking part in an anti-racist tour of the South sponsored by a Connecticut church. He informed the crowd that Calhoun was not only racist toward Blacks, but a prime mover in the development of the idea of “Indian Removal” of Indians from the eastern half of the country. Calhoun called for removal years before Andrew Jackson’s successful legislation and brutal implementation.
Calhoun was Secretary of War under President Monroe. In 1818 he wrote a report to Congress saying it was time for a new policy towards Indians. One reason he said was not because of recent decisive Indian military defeats, but also because of a “fixed law of nature, in the intercourse between a civilized and a savage people.” Indians had become dependent on advanced tools produced by whites and were becoming helpless.
What did Calhoun conclude? He wrote that Indians “neither are, nor ought to be, considered as independent nations.” All tribal authority had to end. Indians had better adopt white ways and fast. The U.S. had to look out for them for their own good. “It is only by causing our opinion of their interest to prevail, that they can be civilized and saved from extinction.”
In the 1820 white land lust in Georgia pressed against the Creek nation and the federal government bargained a treaty in which the Creeks surrendered 4.5 million acres. This only spurred Georgians to press for more and they turned their sights on the Cherokee. They proposed the Cherokee sell their land, but were rebuffed. Cherokee leaders appealed to Washington, but Secretary of War Calhoun in 1824 told the Cherokees they could not remain in Georgia as a separate community. That was not enough for expansionist Georgians, though. They didn’t want the Cherokee in Georgia as individual property owners either.
In 1825 U.S. negotiators made a treaty with a Creek leader who fraudulently represented himself as the authority for all Creeks. Millions of acres of Creek land were surrendered along with an agreement that the Creek would relocate west of the Mississippi. The U.S. Indian agent for the Creeks protested the fraud to Calhoun, but he never replied. He was on his way to becoming John Quincy Adams Vice-President. In all Calhoun made 41 treaties with Indian nations, all but five required Native Americans to cede land to the U.S.
Calhoun sent a report to Monroe on January 24, 1825 calling for Indian tribes in the south to be voluntarily sent to lands lying west of Arkansas and Missouri. Three days later Monroe sent a special message to Congress on the subject calling for such measures. As Secretary of War, Calhoun couldn’t start a bill in Congress by himself. Senator Thomas Hart Benton introduced a bill reflecting Calhoun’s sentiments and it passed the Senate though it ultimately failed.
Calhoun was vice-president under John Quincy Adams and again during Andrew Jackson’s first term. He held the position when Jackson passed the awful Indian Removal Act of 1830. The Trail of Tears took place after Calhoun left office, but there’s no record that he shed a single tear over the thousands of dead his racist notions helped doom.
Recently, at the rally near Yale Travis Harden talked about what was happening at the “Water is Life” camp at Standing Rock. The night before over 100 water protectors had been arrested and many suffered violence. Harden said his own son was maced and shot with a rubber bullet. Harden told the crowd the encampment was non-violent and was prepared to stay through winter and was digging in.
He concluded by singing an American Indian Movement honor song and got an enthusiastic response. While he sang he hit on a drum on which were written #NODAPL and Palestinian rights messages. He ended by leading the crowd in a “Water is Life” chant.
Harden gave similar messages throughout a ten day Wheels of Justice tour of the South that had ended just a few days earlier. Harden (and I) accompanied 25 members of the First Congregational Church of Old Lyme on a ten day 3500 mile journey of sites important in Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter struggles. Going from the church in Charleston where 9 people were murdered last year by a racist, to the Edmond Pettus Bridge where civil rights marchers were beaten in 1965 in Selma, to the motel in Memphis where Martin Luther King was killed, we learned about past and ongoing racism and talked about parallels in treatment of Blacks, Native Americans and Palestinians.