An African-American dishwasher lost his job after breaking a stained-glass panel in Yale’s Calhoun residential college dining hall that depicted slaves carrying bales of cotton.
The dishwasher, Corey Menafee, said he used a broomstick to knock the panel to the floor. He said he was tired of looking at the “racist, very degrading” image.
City police arrested Menafee, who now faces a felony charge. The university, meanwhile, has cut ties with him. (It was not officially clear Monday afternoon how exactly that happened.)
His actions provide the latest chapter in a contentious debate over the racially charged symbolism of the college, named for slavery advocate and former U.S. Vice-President John C. Calhoun. The debate gathered steam last summer with a petition demanding a name change, and has since grown to encompass the slavery-themed paintings, artifacts, and stained-glass tiles displayed in the college. In April, Yale President Peter Salovey announced that Yale will keep the Calhoun name despite a year-long campaign by students and faculty calling for it to be changed.
Menafee, who is 38 years old, said he wasn’t motivated by allegiance to student activists when, while helping clean the hall on Monday, June 13, he decided on a sudden impulse to knock the panel down.
“When I walked into this job, I wasn’t aware of none of that,” Menafee said. “And then you know, being there, you start hearing different things.”
“I took a broomstick, and it was kind of high, and I climbed up and reached up and broke it,” he said. “It’s 2016, I shouldn’t have to come to work and see things like that.”
“I just said, ‘That thing’s coming down today. I’m tired of it,’” he added. “I put myself in a position to do it, and did it.”
Yale Hospitality, Menafee’s employer, declined to comment on a personnel matter.
Last week, “Head of College” (the new title replacing “master”) Julia Adams announced in an email to the Calhoun community that a set of stained glass panels depicting various moments from the statesman’s life would be removed from the college common room.
In the email, Adams said the impetus for their removal came from a study conducted by Yale’s Committee on Art in Public Spaces “following damage to one of the windows” in the dining hall. In an interview, she declined to confirm that the window in question was the same panel broken by Menafee, referring further questions to University spokesman Tom Conroy. Conroy told the Independent that Menafee’s status is officially “not employed by the university.” He said he may not disclose any further information about what’s a personnel matter.
Update: After this story was originally published, Yale Vice President for Communications Eileen O’Connor sent a statement to the Independent.
“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 and onto 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.”
In an interview with the Independent, O’Connor said she doesn’t know for sure if the glass fell on the passerby or in front of her, but “it was scary enough nonetheless.“The woman was not injured. O’Connor claimed that Menafee’s resignation was not a condition of Yale declining to pursue the charges. Menafee himself declined to comment on that same question.
Last month, dining hall workers from across the university gathered in Calhoun to prepare food for a June 15 staff appreciation event on Old Campus, according to one of the workers involved. It didn’t take long for conversation to turn to the stained-glass panels on the Elm Street side of the building, said the worker, who asked to remain anonymous due to the sensitive nature of the issue.
“Everybody has something to say about them,” the worker said. “[Menafee] was the one who took action and busted that shit out.”
Menafee, who has not been in touch with his colleagues since losing his job, said he smacked the stained glass twice with his broom, then watched the panel fall to the ground, where it broke into pieces.
His boss, dining hall manager Samuel Feliciano, witnessed the episode, Menafee said, and police arrived on the scene shortly thereafter. (Feliciano could not be reached for comment.)
“I just went to the bathroom and shaved,” Menafee said, “to make sure I was clean-shaven for the authorities.”
He was arrested in Calhoun by the New Haven Police Department and left the college in handcuffs. He faces a second-degree misdemeanor charge of reckless endangerment and a first-degree felony charge of criminal mischief. He has yet to enter a plea.
Menafee grew up in New Haven and has two children. He graduated from Virginia Union University in 2001 with a degree in mass communications. Before starting his job at Yale in September 2007, he worked for a management services firm, and also spent a few months as a substitute teacher.
He said he regrets breaking the windows — ten seconds of action that cost him a job he loved.
“It could be termed as civil disobedience,” Menafee said. “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 lost his job, he said, because the university deemed him a potential threat to students, an assessment he vigorously contests.
In an interview with the Independent, Conroy said Menafee’s status is officially “not employed by the university.” He said he may not disclose any information on personnel records.
“I didn’t commit any acts of violence against anyone or any living thing,” Menafee said. “I didn’t be belligerent, or yell. I just broke the windows.”