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Exclusive: Meet Yale Dishwasher Corey Menafee, Who Smashed Racist Stained-Glass Window

StoryJuly 15, 2016
Watch iconWatch Full Show

Guests
Corey Menafee

former general services assistant for eight years in Yale University’s food service department. In June, he broke a stained-glass window depicting enslaved Africans carrying cotton. This week the university announced it dropped its charges against him.

Craig Steven Wilder

author of the book Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. Wilder is an MIT professor of American history and has taught at Williams College and Dartmouth College. He has a new essay on Catholic colleges and slavery in the forthcoming anthology, Slavery’s Capitalism: A New History of American Economic Development.

Patricia Kane

the lawyer for Corey Menafee. She is also a trained mediator.

As Black Lives Matter protests have swept the country in recent weeks, we end today’s show with the story of one dishwasher at Yale University who has decided to take the university’s history of racism into his own hands—or his own broomstick, in this case. Corey Menafee worked for Yale for about eight years. In June, as he was cleaning a dining room in Yale’s residential dorm Calhoun College, Menafee stood on top of a table and used a broomstick to break a stained-glass window depicting enslaved Africans carrying bales of cotton. Menafee said the image is racist and degrading and that he had become sick of seeing it every day. Calhoun College is named after former Vice President John C. Calhoun, one of the most prominent pro-slavery figures in history. For years students have demanded Yale change the building’s name. Yale University police arrested Menafee and charged him with reckless endangerment and felony mischief. But on Wednesday, after Yale students and community members demonstrated in support of Menafee, Yale University announced it has dropped the charges. We speak to Corey Menafee and Craig Steven Wilder, author of the book "Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities."


TRANSCRIPT
This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: As Black Lives Matter protests have swept the country in recent weeks, we end today’s show with the story of one dishwasher at Yale University who has decided to take the university’s history of racism into his own hands—or his own broomstick, in this case. Corey Menafee worked for Yale for about eight years. In June, as he was cleaning a dining room in Yale’s residential dorm Calhoun College, Menafee stood on top of a table and used a broomstick to break a stained-glass window depicting enslaved Africans carrying bales of cotton, with a broom handle. Menafee said the image is racist and degrading and that he had become sick of seeing it every day. Calhoun College is named after former Vice President John C. Calhoun, one of the most prominent pro-slavery figures in U.S. history. For years students have demanded Yale change the building’s name. Yale University police arrested Menafee and charged him with reckless endangerment and felony mischief. But on Wednesday, after Yale students and community members demonstrated in support of Menafee, Yale University announced it has dropped the charges.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined right now by Corey Menafee himself, who broke the window at Yale University, as well as his attorney, Patricia Kane. And we’re joined by Craig Steven Wilder, author of the book Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities.

We welcome you all to Democracy Now! Corey, let us begin with you. Describe what happened, what day it was and what you did.

COREY MENAFEE: Well, it was a typical workday. I was performing my normal duties—cleaning, scrubbing. And we had our little break, our little 10-minute break. And I don’t know, something inside me said, you know, that thing has to come down. You know, it’s a picture—it was a picture that just—you know, as soon as you look at it, it just hurts. You feel it in your heart, like, oh, man—like here in the 21st century, you know, we’re in a modern era where we shouldn’t have to be subjected to those primitive and degrading images.

AMY GOODMAN: Describe the stained glass at Calhoun College at Yale.

COREY MENAFEE: Well, it was a small—it was a small piece of glass that was no bigger than a tablet. It was—it depicted a male and a female, both appearing to be African-American, standing in a field of white crops, what appear to be cotton, with baskets over their heads. And I believe one of the figures were actually smiling, which is like so condescending, because looking back on slavery, like, it wasn’t a happy time for African Americans.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: Now, the university has been embroiled now for quite some time in protests over this issue of Calhoun College. You were—since you’ve been working there for eight years, were you aware of the student protests and the controversy that had arisen?

COREY MENAFEE: Well, yes. Over the last year—over the last year, I was actually transitioned into Calhoun Dining Hall from Davenport Dining Hall. So I, firsthand, got to see, you know, how it was affecting the students and how the students felt about the name John Calhoun being—being donned on their college. And everything he represented is just—is such a contradiction for what Yale University represents, because Yale University’s motto is "Lux et Veritas," which is Latin for "Truth Through Enlightenment." So, if you’re an institution of higher learning where you’re trying to enlighten young people and train them to be productive members of society, why would you have a degrading image like that blatantly displayed?

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Democracy Now! reached out to Yale University for a response to your case, Corey Menafee. They issued this statement, quote: "As part of [President Salovey]'s initiative in April to review Yale's history with regard to slavery, the Committee on Art in Public Spaces was charged to assess all of the art on campus, including the windows in Calhoun. After the window was broken in June, the Committee recommended [that] it and some other windows be removed from Calhoun, conserved for future study and a possible contextual exhibition, and replaced temporarily with tinted glass. 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." So, Corey Menafee, you have started a major policy change at Yale University. But what’s happened to you? Describe what you did as you looked up at the stained glass that you’d seen for a while.

COREY MENAFEE: Well, I just basically took a broom handle and destroyed the image. Since then, there is a bit of regret, because, as a grown adult with a sound mind and able to think, you know, you don’t never want to result to those type of tactics, as far as bringing change about. You want to sit down, and you want to talk to people, and you want to—you want to use your intellectual skills. You’re not—you don’t want to physically just destroy something. I don’t encourage anybody to just go ahead and destroy another person’s or another entity’s property because you don’t like it. There’s better ways to resolve it. However, the action that I did, obviously, there is a plethora of people who believe the same thing, who felt the same thing. So, in that way, I think my actions were justified, because other people—a lot of other people feel the same way I feel.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: I’d like to bring in Craig Steven Wilder. You’ve written the book Ebony & Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities. Put what’s happened here at Yale, and Corey’s actions, in context of what you uncovered about the role of American universities in slavery.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Well, you know, the short of the story is that the American college is a product of the African slave trade and African-American slavery, that none of the colleges survived the colonial period without attaching themselves to that unfree economy and drawing money from that economy. But in particular what Mr. Menafee did, I find quite inspirational and interesting for a number of reasons. While the attention has been focused on him, a lot of the attention should focus on Yale’s trustees and its administration. They had an opportunity to address this issue. They’ve had multiple opportunities to address it. And they’ve declined to do that, and they’ve declined to do it for lots of what I think are really quite dubious reasons. And what you, therefore, end up with is an interesting problem that continues to get perpetuated.

The conversation about what to do with the visual culture of slavery that’s on our campuses—it’s embedded in our visual culture, it’s embedded in our architectural culture. The problem of what to do has been a conversation that’s actually happened between relatively privileged people—the alumni of elite institutions, the administrations of elite institutions and students at elite institutions. And the group that’s been missing are the communities that surround those schools and the people who actually do the hard work of running our institutions on a day-to-day basis. Excluded from the conversation have been the people who actually clean our offices, cook our food, move the campus buses around. But they actually spend a lot more time being impacted by those sort of visual reminders of slavery than most of the rest of us do.

AMY GOODMAN: What is Yale University’s link to slavery?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: Yale’s link to slavery started at the very beginning. You know, when the trustees met in 1701 to organize the college, then the Collegiate School, as one historian points out, they were followed by their slaves to that meeting. So slavery is at the beginning of Yale, and it continues to be the source of funding for Yale thereafter. For instance, in 1718, it gets money from Elihu Yale, who engaged in the slave trade himself, a Welsh merchant. And they name the school after Yale; they take the name of Yale at that point. But they also continue to get funding from slavery and the slave trade thereafter. George Berkeley gives them a farm in the late 1720s, a small slave plantation in Rhode Island, that they then rent out to fund their first graduate courses and their first scholarships. And so, almost every decade in Yale’s history, right up until the Civil War, is a story of Yale’s relationship to slavery and the slave trade.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And, Patricia Kane, I’d like to bring you in. You’re Corey’s lawyer. The university has dropped the criminal charges, but he was fired, right?

PATRICIA KANE: Well, technically, they’re still pending until we go to court on July 26, at which time we expect for the court to decide they will not prosecute. And that will be the end of the legal proceedings, but not the end of the problems for Mr. Menafee, who’s lost his job and is about to lose his health insurance at the end of the month.

JUAN GONZÁLEZ: And so, what are you seeking to do?

PATRICIA KANE: We’re—I’ve been trying to establish a dialogue with someone in authority at Yale. I have spoken twice with legal counsel. But there’s no movement to bring the parties together and to find a resolution. I mean, Yale has a disconnect with its own people—its alumni, its students, its employees, like Mr. Menafee. I think Yale needs to redeem itself by giving him his job back. That’s a good place to start.

Students trash university property all the time. There are never criminal charges. No one is ever kicked off campus. They might take a little leave of absence. So, in a way, they want—Yale wants it both ways: They’re kind of acknowledging, well, this was an offensive image, because now we’re going to inventory and get rid of them, but they’re not taking care of the human being involved in this.

AMY GOODMAN: Corey Menafee, do you want your job back?

COREY MENAFEE: Yes, I most certainly would love my job back.

AMY GOODMAN: And your response to them taking out the stained glass that showed images of slavery and happy slaves?

COREY MENAFEE: I think that that’s a wise and a good move on the part of Yale University.

AMY GOODMAN: Craig Wilder, you’re a professor at MIT, of American History. You’ve written about all this. What do you think the university should do right now?

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: I think the university has to take more responsibility for its decision to—its decision to not de-escalate this situation, to begin with. These students have been protesting now for—actually not for a few months, not for a few years, but for actually more than three decades. This goes back to the 1980s and the 1970s.

AMY GOODMAN: To remove the name Calhoun from the college.

CRAIG STEVEN WILDER: To remove the name Calhoun, to rename the colleges that were named in the 1930s after slave owners and slave traders. And so, this has been a long-lasting protest, and Yale has actually been resistant to doing the right thing for a long time.

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Next story from this daily show

Craig Steven Wilder on How Georgetown & U.S. Catholic Church Expanded Thanks to Slave Holdings

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