Confronting Past and Present With Art at Yale’s Hopper College
In 2017, Yale rebranded its undergraduate Calhoun College—originally named after John C. Calhoun, a white supremacist and vociferous advocate of slavery—as Hopper College, in honor of alum Grace Murray Hopper, a computer scientist and Navy vet.
Now, Yale is addressing the imagery tied to Calhoun on campus—notably in the Hopper College dining hall’s decorative windows celebrating life in the antebellum South. In 2016, a dining hall employee climbed atop a table and used a broom handle to smash a stained-glass window depicting slaves working in a cotton field. After, Yale moved five more windows from the hall to its Manuscripts & Archives Department, and replaced them with temporary panels.
Having been selected by a university committee, artist Barbara Earl Thomas accepted a commission to design a new set of windows that contextualizes the college, past and present.
“My goal with this project is to depict the history of the college’s name in a way that is real, honorable, and in the spirit of our time,” Thomas says. “I want the images to tell the story of the renaming, addressing John C. Calhoun’s disturbing legacy while honoring the life of Grace Murray Hopper.”
Thomas is known for her glass and paper work, as well as egg tempera painting, sculpture, linocuts and woodblock prints. Her maquettes for the windows give insight into the final designs. One panel is set to feature Calhoun being confronted by a former slave with broken chains; another depicts a robin carrying Calhoun’s name into the background while a hummingbird brings Hopper’s forth; and a third celebrates the 1969 incorporation of coeducation at Yale. For the remaining two panels, set to represent campus life, Thomas is planning to solicit input from students.
In addition to the windows, Thomas is also designing two backlit metalwork portraits that will also reside in the dining hall: one of Hopper, and one of the hall’s namesake, Roosevelt L. Thompson—an African American Rhodes Scholar and resident of the college who died in a car crash in his final year at the school. The dining hall was named for Thompson in 2016.
All told, “Barbara confronts topics that people are often in denial about, such as systemic racism. We didn’t want this project to deny the site’s history,” says artist Anoka Faruqee, co-director of graduate studies in painting and printmaking at the Yale School of Art. “The committee was impressed with the way her preliminary design interweaves the contrasting legacies of Calhoun, Hopper and Thompson. One of her strengths as an artist is her ability to examine disparate histories and show how they intersect and relate to one another.”
Here’s a look at more of Thomas’ work.