On the heels of a horrendous week of American racial reckoning, here is another data point: A black cafeteria worker at Yale has been arrested for shattering a glass dining hall window that showed slaves carrying bales of cotton. The 38-year-old man, Corey Menafee, washed dishes in Calhoun College, a residential dorm named (in the 1930s) for slaveholder and ardent slavery advocate John C. Calhoun.
Menafee told the New Haven Independent that, sick of looking at the “racist, very degrading” stained glass tableau, he used a broom to knock the panel to the ground, where it broke into pieces. “It’s 2016, I shouldn’t have to come to work and see things like that,” he said. After he neutralized the window, he told the paper, “I just went to the bathroom and shaved … to make sure I was clean-shaven for the authorities.”
Menafee, who left campus in handcuffs on June 13, faces a second-degree misdemeanor charge of reckless endangerment and a first-degree felony charge of criminal mischief, according to the Independent. A Yale spokesman confirmed that he no longer works for the university. Menafee has not yet entered a plea.
Menafee is not the first to register his disgust with the racially fraught iconography bedecking Calhoun College. Last summer, students drew up a petition asking Yale to change the building’s name; they also demanded that the historical paintings and objects depicting slavery be removed from the common room. But in April, administrators denied those requests, arguing that to remove Calhoun’s name “obscures the legacy of slavery rather than addressing it.”
According to the Independent, dining hall workers from all over Yale congregated in Calhoun two days after the arrest, in order to prepare food for a staff appreciation lunch. One anonymous worker at the event confided that “everybody had something to say about” the stained-glass panel Menafee destroyed. He was simply “the one who took action and busted that shit out.”
For his part, Menafee told the Independent that he regrets smashing the idealized portrait of two slaves, one man and one woman, toting fluffy sheaves of cotton on their heads: “It could be termed as civil disobedience … But there’s always better ways of doing things like that than just destroying things. It wasn’t my property, and I had no right to do it,” he said.
Menafee, who lived in Virginia before Yale hired him nine years ago, earned a degree in mass communications at Virginia Union University. A father of two, he’s worked at a management services firm and as a substitute teacher. In 2008, he was found guilty of a second-degree breach of peace. I’ve reached out to Menafee for comment and will update this post if he replies.
I lived in Calhoun College as a student, and I remember the stained glass panel that Menafee cracked. It was gross. It embarrassed us and disgraced the college. I would guess that many members of the Yale community appreciate Menafee’s precise surgical excision of a malignant image that once glowed balefully down upon their heads as they tried to enjoy the dining hall’s famous tofu apple crisp. Nor does the late slavery panel represent some sacred carbuncle of 19th century history—Calhoun College was erected in 1933.
Obviously people should not go around vandalizing university property, but they should also not have to confront valorizations of human bondage and racist oppression every day when they go into work.
Update, July 11, 2016, 5:40 p.m.: Yale gave the following statement to Gawker.
An incident occurred at Calhoun College, a residential college on the campus of Yale University, in which a stained glass window was broken by an employee of Yale, resulting in glass falling onto the street near a passerby, endangering her safety.
The employee apologized for his actions and subsequently resigned from the University. The University will not advocate that the employee be prosecuted in connection with this incident and is not seeking restitution.