The Other Calhoun

The Other Calhoun

Published on April 22, 2017

The largest community college in Alabama overlooks a barren stretch of highway just north of the old industrial city of Decatur. Constructed in the early 1960s, the red brick complex abuts a small airport where U.S. Army pilots trained during World War II. A gas station and a Subway franchise are the only other landmarks in sight. This campus in suburban Alabama is separated from Yale University by nearly 1,000 miles of land and a seemingly infinite amount of wealth and academic prestige. But the college does have one timely connection to Yale: It is named after John C. Calhoun.

Calhoun Community College is a two-year institution serving roughly 10,000 students, almost a fifth of whom are black. It offers classes in welding and pipe fitting as well as math and history. The college’s mascot is the Warhawk — a reference to Calhoun’s support for the War of 1812 — and the main hangout area on campus is called the Hawk’s Nest. A portrait of Calhoun hangs in the library.

But over the past year and a half, as Yale has weathered a heated debate over the name of its own Calhoun College — culminating this February in the University’s decision to rename the building in honor of computer scientist Grace Murray Hopper GRD ’34 — the community college located just off Highway 31 North in Decatur has been untouched by controversy.

As virtually every student at Yale now knows, Calhoun, a graduate of the class of 1804, was a prominent South Carolina politician who unapologetically promoted chattel slavery in the decades leading up to the Civil War. A pioneering political theorist and the only American to serve as vice-president in two different administrations, Calhoun was also, even by the standards of the antebellum South, an extraordinarily virulent white supremacist, a champion of states’ rights who famously argued that slavery was “a positive good.” But at Calhoun Community College, the background of the school’s namesake remains unfamiliar to the vast majority of students, many of whom have never even heard his full name.

“I don’t think they know there’s a ‘John C’ in front of the Calhoun,” one Calhoun Community College student explained to me over lunch last month.

In March, I flew to Decatur, Alabama to ask students at Calhoun Community College what they thought about their college’s name. The campus I encountered could not have been less like Yale. At the other Calhoun, naming — an issue that has engaged students across the Ivy League for the past 18 months — simply does not register as a legitimate concern.

One of the first students I met at Calhoun was Antoinette Brown, a black woman who serves as president of the college’s student council. After graduating high school in 2015, Brown moved to Alabama from her home in East Stroudsburg, Pennsylvania, carrying with her sad memories of her father, who had recently died of liver cancer. I asked Brown about John C. Calhoun. She said most students she knows have better things to worry about than the name of their college.

“Some people have jobs, some people have kids to take care of, some people have to worry about when they’re going to get their next paycheck to pay off the bills, or they might be in debt, or they might have to worry about how to figure out college tuition, or about their family and their parents,” she said. “It’s just the name of the school. They have other things that are more important.”

Calhoun Community College is far from the only place in the United States that still carries John C. Calhoun’s name. The church in Charleston, South Carolina, where nine black parishioners were shot to death in the summer of 2015 is located on Calhoun Street, just half a block away from an 80-foot monument topped by a statue of the state’s former senator. A lake in Minnesota is also named for Calhoun. So are a small town in Mississippi and a larger one in Georgia.

The college is arguably not even the most significant tribute to Calhoun in the state of Alabama. About 150 miles south of Decatur lies the city of Anniston, the government seat of Calhoun County, a 612-square-mile region named in honor of the antebellum statesman. But in light of Yale’s headline-grabbing naming debate, the story of Calhoun Community College is especially compelling — a vivid illustration of two opposing poles in higher education and a powerful example of the regional divisions that still define American politics and culture.

Calhoun Community College opened in 1941 as the Decatur Trade School, an industrial facility where students learned to make military supplies during World War II. Students at the trade school took welding classes and learned to read blueprints and operate radios. After the war, the school moved to a plot of land next to Pryor Field Regional Airport and was renamed the Tennessee Valley Vocational Technical School. In the early 1960s, as part of a statewide education initiative engineered by then-Gov. George Wallace, it expanded to include a junior college as well as a vocational facility.

(Photo by David Yaffe-Bellany)

In the North, Wallace is best known for his intransigent opposition to the civil rights movement. At his inauguration in 1963, he famously promised, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever.” But during his first term as governor, Wallace also established some dozen junior colleges across Alabama to revitalize the state economy by preparing high school graduates for the workforce. Nationwide, the 1960s represented a period of significant growth for the community college system, as nearly 500 new facilities opened across the country to keep up with demand from the baby-boom generation.

Robert Norrell, a history professor at the University of Tennessee who is an expert on race relations in the South, said Wallace used the colleges partly as a patronage network to reward political supporters with jobs and construction projects in their hometowns. And according to Yale graduate student Justin Randolph GRD ’20, who attended community college in Alabama and is writing his history dissertation on the 20th-century South, the initiative may also have been designed to improve Alabama’s reputation at a time when the state was under intense national scrutiny because of its resistance to the civil rights movement. “Part of it is this impetus: All eyes are on us, we have to show some kind of modernizing, civilizing or moderating of our political attitudes,” he said.

That impulse apparently did not sway the state Board of Education when it chose names for the new junior colleges in the mid-1960s. Although honorees included early American heroes like Thomas Jefferson, the board also named colleges after such Confederate icons as Joseph Wheeler and Jefferson Davis. And for the junior college opening next door to the Tennessee Valley Vocational Technical School, the board picked John C. Calhoun — “a strong advocate for states’ rights,” as Wallace put it at the college’s dedication ceremony in 1966.

“The Confederate past was romanticized and celebrated as a challenge to the civil rights movement. In the political culture of that time, there was a lot of impulse to celebrate the Confederacy,” Norrell said. “Calhoun didn’t have anything to do with the Confederacy, but he was a symbol of pro-slavery, anti-national government states’ rights — the view that slavery was a good thing in Southern life.”

In the following decades, Calhoun grew to become the largest community college in Alabama, opening a second campus in Huntsville in the mid-1990s and a new arts facility in downtown Decatur last year. But despite the black-and-white portrait of Calhoun that still hangs in the campus library, the history of the college’s namesake has been largely forgotten. Janet Kincherlow-Martin, the college’s public affairs liaison, estimated that 85 percent of current students would not recognize the name John C. Calhoun.

When I arrived in Alabama, I soon found that the cities of Decatur and Huntsville are full of former Calhoun students, whether graduates of the college now working at local businesses or blue-collar employees who took just enough credits to earn a raise. But almost none of the alumni I approached knew anything about the college’s namesake. On the cab ride from Huntsville Airport to my hotel in Decatur, I learned that my driver Hazm Saleem, a 48-year-old Iraqi who worked as an interpreter for the Army after immigrating to the United States in the early 1990s, had taken a handful of online classes through Calhoun in 2013. Saleem described the school as “awesome” — cheap, easy to get into and not much work.

But when I asked whether he had heard of Calhoun the man, Saleem paused and then slowly shook his head. “I’ve never known nothing about him,” he said. “I’ve always thought this is a guy who decided to establish a community college, and had the money to do it. It’s like a business and you put your name on it, that’s what I thought.”

I told Saleem that Calhoun was an outspoken slavery supporter in the 19th century. Saleem started to laugh. At the next traffic light, he scrolled through his iPhone contacts, pointing excitedly to all his black friends, some of them fellow cab drivers who currently study at Calhoun. “They’re all black. They should’ve known,” he said. “I don’t think one of them does.”

As we sped through downtown Decatur, Saleem clicked on a contact ambiguously labeled “Chris or Jamal.”

“Do you know who’s Calhoun?” Saleem shouted into the phone.

“Huh?”

He rolled his eyes. “Who’s the guy who it’s named after, the college?”

“Calhoun? President or something, I don’t know. What is this shit?”

Saleem roared with laughter. “You stupid, man. That guy supported slavery!”

Tariona Adams never planned to attend Calhoun Community College. As the star power forward for the women’s basketball team at her high school in Athens, Alabama, a city a few miles north of Decatur, Adams seemed destined for bigger things, maybe even the W.N.B.A. She earned a full ride to Columbia State Community College in southern Tennessee and was set to start for the basketball team. But after a few months, Adams grew to resent the daily grind of college sports — a morning run, followed by classes, a gym workout and then more classes. At the same time, her grandmother was battling cancer, and her nine-year-old sister was in and out of the hospital with a variety of ailments.

“It’s hard to keep faith when you have school, you have a sport, you have family issues and all that,” said Adams, who is black. “You have got to keep the faith, and that time I had lack of faith, and I just couldn’t do it anymore.”

Adams quit the basketball team at Columbia State and transferred to Shelton State Community College in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. But she had to travel home most weekends to take care of her grandmother, and the two-hour drive from Tuscaloosa to Athens was a tiring routine. So last January, Adams enrolled at Calhoun with dreams of breaking into the music industry like her favorite artist Lil Wayne.

Adams called Calhoun “a great school” and praised the network of advisors who help guide students to their degrees. Still, she regrets throwing away her basketball prospects after a few tough practices at Columbia State. “I have a best friend that plays for Northwest Florida, and she always calls me and tells me what goes on. That just brings back memories,” Adams said. “And then I could run into my high school coach, and it just brings back memories as well. I do miss it. I do.”

Adams is hardly the only student to arrive at Calhoun after missed opportunities, bad luck or a family crisis. One aspiring artist told me she was forced to turn down a slot at the Pacific Northwest College of Art in Oregon because her family couldn’t afford to send her out of state. Another student spent two years at home in nearby Hartsville after he finished high school, doing little but playing video games. He enrolled at Calhoun last year because he had “nothing better to do.”

According to the National Center for Education Statistics, nearly 40 percent of American undergraduates attend two-year public or private colleges. A community college experience is far more typical in American higher education than four years at an elite institution like Yale. The students I met at Calhoun lead very different lives than Yale undergraduates. Most live in Huntsville or Decatur, not San Francisco or New York. Some are adults, like Saleem, my cab driver, earning credits toward a long-sought degree or a quick promotion at work. Others finished high school in the mid-2000s, worked for a few years and only recently found time to pursue further education. Although Calhoun has a successful baseball program, best known for producing the former New York Yankees catcher Jorge Posada, most students do not participate in sports or extracurricular clubs.

“With us being a commuter college, our students are here for one reason: They come here, go to class and then they leave,” Kincherlow-Martin told me. “It’s a much different environment than a residential institution. The only hanging out they do would be between classes.”

On my first day visiting the Decatur campus, I stopped by the Hawk’s Nest, a lounge area connected to the library where students sometimes go to eat lunch or play table tennis. I started chatting with David Orme, a 17-year-old business major who was collecting signatures for a new fraternity, Iota Theta Kappa, that he hopes to start at Calhoun. In high school, Orme played varsity baseball and was good enough to be recruited by Wallace State, a local community college named after the former governor. But at the end of his sophomore year, Orme was caught with 16 marijuana joints in his backpack and promptly expelled from school. “I don’t smoke anymore,” he said. “That really kind of ruined the fun for me.”

After his expulsion, Orme was home-schooled by his father and managed to graduate a year early. Now he plans to pursue a career in management, possibly as the chief financial officer at a major company. But he knew little about John C. Calhoun — he thought I might be referring to the actor John C. Reilly — and when I explained the situation at Yale, he reacted with disdain.

“That’s just stupid,” Orme said. “I’m going to be no one’s hero when I say this, but it’s stupid. It’s a building name.”

Orme was joined at the table by Jay Foster, a biochemistry student finishing his last semester at Calhoun. Foster enrolled at Calhoun in 2015 because of his family’s straitened finances: Suffering from bone spurs and three types of arthritis, his father had recently been forced to leave his welding job. “He’s had to work hard his entire life, and that put kind of a financial strain on us,” Foster said. A self-described “history buff,” Foster was the only student I met who knew anything about John C. Calhoun. But like Orme, he was unimpressed by my account of the renaming protests at Yale.

“It’s a reason for people to whine, because they have nothing else to whine about,” Foster said. “There are much worse things going on than [having] to live in a building named for some guy that’s been dead for a hundred-and-something years.”

Foster and Orme are fervent supporters of President Donald Trump, and both expressed profound distrust for the brand of liberal campus politics that drove Yale’s renaming movement. At one point during the presidential election campaign, Orme said he was reprimanded by a “super left” teacher for wearing his bright-red “Make America Great Again” hat to school. Foster spoke sarcastically about “the great privilege” of sitting between a “staunch female Hillary supporter and a staunch female Bernie Sanders supporter” in a class last semester.

As he scrolled through basketball scores on his laptop, Orme said he could imagine a naming debate taking place at Calhoun — but not about the school’s notorious namesake.

“If there was a building here named after Malcolm X — like the Malcolm X Hall of Science — there’d be some uproar about that,” he said.

It took Yale decades of debate and more than a year and a half of protests, committee meetings and administrative backpedaling to rename Calhoun College. But the official process was always in the University’s hands. At its meeting last February, the Yale Corporation voted to rename Calhoun based on the recommendation of a faculty task force, reversing its decision a year earlier to keep the college name. The change will officially go into effect July 1.

As a public institution, Calhoun Community College does not have that same freedom, according to Kincherlow-Martin. A name change request would have to work its way through the college administration and eventually receive approval from the state legislature. “If everybody in north Alabama decided today we don’t like that name, it doesn’t matter what we like, because there is a process we have to follow to get our name,” she said.

But any attempt to rename Calhoun Community College would face a further obstacle: The college’s administrators are not interested in having this debate. In August 2015, Yale President Peter Salovey used his annual Freshman Address to open a campuswide discussion about naming and historical symbolism. “Members of the class of 2019, here is your first hard problem,” he said. “Welcome to Yale!” By contrast, the president of Calhoun Community College, a former South Carolina legislator named Jim Klauber who arrived on campus two years ago, refused to meet with me to discuss the college name. The acting chancellor of the Alabama Community College System, Jimmy Baker, did not return my phone call.

“The chancellor has made it clear that he would prefer for President Klauber not to speak on it at all,” Kincherlow-Martin told me about a week before I showed up on campus. “That needs to be the end of any conversation.”

As I started asking more questions and contacting college faculty, it became increasingly clear that the Calhoun administration was desperate to avoid the monthslong naming debate that took place at Yale.

One day in February, Kincherlow-Martin called to tell me that Calhoun’s faculty and staff are not allowed to speak to the press without her permission. A few instructors had complained to her about the emails I had sent them, she said. I pointed out that three faculty members had said they would be happy to talk to me. Kincherlow-Martin replied that some instructors “have an agenda” and accused me of “trying to stir up controversy.” During one particularly tense phone call a week before I was scheduled to fly to Alabama, Kincherlow-Martin threatened to kick me off campus if I continued asking questions about John C. Calhoun. That afternoon, she sent a mass email to faculty and staff reminding them to check with her before speaking to the press.

After I arrived on campus in early March, I visited the office of Gene Barnett, a history instructor who had replied enthusiastically to my initial email about the story. As soon as I uttered the words “Yale Daily News,” the previously affable Barnett retreated into a defensive crouch. “You have to talk to Ms. Janet Martin on the third floor of the math and science building,” he said. “I was told to tell you to go see Ms. Janet Martin on the third floor of the math and science building.”

(Photo by David Yaffe-Bellany)

I thanked Barnett for his time and turned to leave. But before I reached the door, he started to speak again. “I have this real bad habit,” he said. “I like having a roof over my head, I like having food to eat and I like riding my horses. And for that, I need a job.”

It was easy to see why Klauber and Kincherlow-Martin might be unhappy that I was coming to campus. After taking over as president in 2015, Klauber ousted three high-ranking college administrators at a cost of around $300,000. A public records request by the Decatur Daily unearthed abuse complaints against the administrators, as well as allegations of financial impropriety. I figured the last thing Klauber needed was another problematic story about Calhoun.

But the college’s resistance to my questions about John C. Calhoun may have deeper historical roots than the administrative upheaval of 2015. In his 2007 book about opposition to the civil rights movement in Mississippi, titled “In Search of Another Country,” the historian Joseph Crespino used the term “racial troubleshooting” to describe a public relations strategy designed to head off racial controversies. When I told Randolph, the Yale graduate student, about my experiences at Calhoun, he said the opposition I had faced from the administration was an example of that phenomenon.

“All these communications and public relations jobs in these small institutions actually came directly out of the civil rights movement,” Randolph said. “Everyone had to have a racial troubleshooter — that’s straight out of 1955.”

On my second day at Calhoun, I went to the third floor of the math and science building to meet with Kincherlow-Martin in person. As I waited in the lobby, her secretary presented me with a “swag bag” of college merchandise: a pen, a key ring, a pack of Post-its — all emblazoned with the word “Calhoun.”

A few minutes later, I followed Kincherlow-Martin into her office, where she sat behind a desk cluttered with papers and promised no more than 15 minutes of her time. At first, she was suspicious and combative, interrupting to ask why I had really come to Alabama. But as I explained the purpose of my trip — to learn about life at the “other Calhoun,” not to stir up controversy — she gradually seemed to warm to me, opening up about her own experiences as a woman of color in Alabama. Kincherlow-Martin has worked at Calhoun for nearly 30 years, but she didn’t learn who John C. Calhoun was until the late 1990s.

Yale decided to rename Calhoun College because his legacy conflicted with the University’s mission. Kincherlow-Martin said she understands why Yale came to that conclusion, but she rejected the notion that the history of the antebellum South has any bearing on the mission of her college. “Our mission is our mission,” she said. “Our mission has nothing to do with what our name is.”

As the interview drew to a close, I told Kincherlow-Martin that students in Calhoun College used to refer to themselves as “Hounies” or members of the “Houn.” She said the “Houn” abbreviation has also caught on in Decatur — much to her distress. “Our name is Calhoun,” she said. “I’m an official kind of person.”

“Don’t you think if somebody should be upset about it, it should be someone who looks like me?” she added. “I’m not getting caught up in what happened 75 years ago, when someone named us. A lot of what you all are talking about, we’ve lived forever. So we’ve tried to move to the positive, because we have lived it as opposed to talking about it.”

The renaming protests at Yale were part of a broader campus movement. The students who took to the streets over the name of Calhoun College also demanded that Yale hire more black faculty members and provide greater support to the four cultural centers. “There are many Yale students, and faculty and staff, who have also encountered the legacy of racism, who live it as well as talk about it,” said Julia Adams, head of the newly renamed Hopper College. “Students at Yale hail from a wide range of economic circumstances, too. The image of Yale may make this harder to see, but it is more and more the case each year.”

In the fall of 2015, as racially charged protests rippled across universities nationwide, from Yale to Missou to Pomona, the main campus of Calhoun Community College remained quiet. This February, when the Yale trustees voted to rename Calhoun College after a female pioneer, barely anyone in Decatur heard the news. At the Calhoun in Alabama, the only thing students complain about is the shortage of parking spaces in front of campus buildings, Kincherlow-Martin said.

When I met Tariona Adams, the former basketball player, she was listening to music in the Chasteen Student Center, next to the campus’ main administrative building. It was around noon, and Adams was already done with class for the day. I asked if there was anything about Calhoun she would like to change. She said it would be great if the college had a basketball team.

(Photo by David Yaffe-Bellany)

Adams had never heard of John C. Calhoun, even though her history class recently finished a unit on the Civil War. “I just came here, so I don’t know too much about the background,” she said. “But I will. I will truly.”

I told her that Yale students believed the name of Calhoun College was a distraction from their education, an assault on their senses that prevented them from concentrating on schoolwork or enjoying themselves outside of class. Adams said the Yale students were being ridiculous.

“Just because they’re in a building it gets in the way of their education? Really? I have to disagree,” she said. “Just because they’re in the building they can’t focus or they can’t get their education? That has nothing to do with it. I could be in a room full of whites, and that’s not going to stop me from getting my education. I could be in an abandoned building, and if a teacher’s in there, she knows what she’s talking about, there’s nothing to stop me from getting my education — nothing. I love my education. That’s why I’ve been to so many schools, because I wouldn’t stop.”

Adams shook her head in disbelief when I told her Yale’s Calhoun College had been renamed in early February. “That’s just outrageous,” she said. “This just happened?” I nodded.

Orme and Foster viewed Yale’s renaming protests as the pathetic antics of politically correct liberals. But for Adams, the naming controversy was a powerful symbol of something altogether different — the cultural and economic gulf between her community college in the deep South and the wealth and privilege of the Ivy League.

“It’s different up there than down here. We just don’t act like that,” Adams said, her voice quavering with emotion. “Education is a gift. I’m not going to let a building stop me from getting my education.”

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