Corey Couldn’t Take It Anymore

A Yale cafeteria worker smashed a monument to slavery and changed an institution.

Photo: Courtesy of Yale University
Photo: Courtesy of Yale University

Life is simple till it isn’t. You’re a kid running in the streets playing games — till you’re not. Your mom’s eyesight goes; homelessness finds you during college. You’re an average Joe till Black Lives Matter goes to the New Haven courthouse to chant “hero” at you. Corey Menafee wasn’t groomed to be a revolutionary, and he wasn’t schooled in tearing down monuments. But four years ago, he swiped into work at a Yale dining hall and drew a line in the sand. He changed the institution forever.

Once upon the ’80s, a kid named Corey lived on Orchard Street but would hang on Kensington. Then he moved to Sheffield Avenue, then Lake Place, where his family had more room. Every three to five years, Corey moved to a different house.

On those New Haven streets, Corey would ride his bike, play basketball, and get up with his buddies. Young, carefree, going with the flow. At 4 or 5, he took to the New York Giants because blue was his favorite color — or because he was watching with his grandfather and his older uncles, who were all Giants fans. Either way, he loved all teams that wore blue: Michigan football, the Mets. Hillhouse High. He always rooted for Hillhouse over Cross.

For winter holidays, his family split into two sides. One side — his mother’s branch — was middle class. You wore your good shirt and tie, you sat around the table and said a prayer; if there was ever music playing, it was violins. He would eat Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner at one or two in the afternoon. Then he would go to the Menafee side — to Powpow’s. That side was more urban; he’d put on jeans and hoodie. There was loud music, dancing, playing spades, yelling and screaming over the moves.

On the Fourth of July, they would get up before sunrise and go to Wharton Brook — both sides of the family together. Corey would guard the picnic table while the elders parked and unpacked the food. There was always a deck of cards for playing spades. Running back and forth to the beach, rolling down dirt hills — that’s how Corey passed the time with the other kids. Stuff that now he’s like, Man, that was dumb. His two grandmothers plus Aunt Gladys cooking the day away. His mom on macaroni-and-cheese duty. Powpow working the grill. There would always be a pot of rice, cabbage or string beans, chicken or pork chops, a baked ham, sweet potatoes, corn bread, lasagna. The whole works.

In those days, his mom’s juvenile diabetes started coming back strong. After her vision went, Corey became her eyes in the kitchen; that’s how he learned to cook — elbows, American cheese, extra-sharp cheddar, a stick of butter, two eggs. But to this day, his macaroni and cheese never comes out quite the same. The love she put into it.

She was caring and sympathetic, kindhearted, but she’d cuss your ass out in a heartbeat. A strong, spirited woman — that was his mom. He became independent like her, not liking to depend on nobody for nothing. From Powpow, he inherited a different ability: to walk with kings and bums alike. Plus, he got Powpow’s comedic intelligence. Being in a bad mood around Corey was hard. In second grade, the teacher called his mom and said, “Corey does his work, he’s a good student, but he’s the class clown. He likes to goof around.” His mom came into school and whupped him right there, with all the kids laughing. She gave away his lunchbox and his backpack. Powpow, who they lived with, was so mad he kicked her out for a minute. But she had high expectations of her son.

In elementary school, Corey took to memorizing. History and social studies were his best subjects because you just cram the facts into your brain. The school laid out two possible paths. You could follow W.E.B. Du Bois, who believed Black people should take on professional roles like doctor, professor, lawyer. He believed they should use their intellect to give back — a mindset Corey would embrace years later at college. Or you could be a Booker T. Washington guy — cast your buckets down here, learn a trade, gain practical skills. After college, in his 20s, Corey would become a Booker T. guy.

When Corey was 10, his mom got pregnant. As a diabetic, she was put on strict bedrest. It was on Corey to do things now — push a cart full of clothes down the hill, learn how to operate a washing machine at the laundromat, bring the list of groceries and money to the store and do the shopping. When she went into labor, the docs said, “This baby’s gonna die, same as the others.” See, Corey’s sister had been premature and died at birth. His brother, William, was also premature and died at birth. But this time, the docs were wrong. Corey became a big brother. The love of his life, that’s what Mitchell became. Corey fed him, changed him, handed him off to a girl while he played street ball. His mom would say, “I had Mitchell just for you.” But if Corey was bad, she’d make threats. “You’re out of my will. You’re not getting Mitch.”

Seventh grade. Corey’s confidence developed. He was cast as Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird. Girls began to develop, too, and Corey fell in love with a different one every day. A girl would randomly smile, say hello, and Corey would think, Oh my God, I love her. He had no skills whatsoever, but he had high aspirations. And the girls who liked him, he didn’t like them back. So he went to the eighth-grade dance alone.

In high school, he was a brain. Biggie Smalls, Wu-Tang, that’s what he liked. His Hillside friends let him hang but pushed him aside when it came to extremes — drugs, beefing. The Tray guys, they’d always be beefing with Hillside. “Nah, this ain’t for you,” his friends said. They coulda seduced him into it, but they had that type of love for him. Once, walking home at one in the morning, he ran into some guys he knew. A Tray guy was like, “Where you from?” Corey said, “the Hill.” Guy had a gun on him and said, “You should run.” But Corey, being young and cocky, was like, “I ain’t gonna run.” He just walked away slowly. Shots started going off; one ricocheted off his shoe. This guy was shooting everything except Corey, then was like, “Turn around, turn around.” When Corey did, the guy put that gun right up on Corey’s chest. Click. No bullets left. Later that night, while Corey was thanking God and counting the bullet holes in his pants (the style was real baggy back then), it dawned on him, He really tried to shoot me. That’s how he learned: Don’t go around saying you’re from any neighborhood since he didn’t have something on his hip to protect him.

Instead of beefing, Corey went to football practice. Even though he stunk, he would joke, “My mixed skill set doesn’t relate to success on the field.” He could catch, but he wasn’t fast. He was a very undersized offensive lineman. After two or three years of this (going to practice every day faithfully, not getting any play time), anyone would’ve quit. But Corey stuck with it; he loved football. Later in life, if he ever said he played football in high school, his uncle would correct him: “You were on the team.”

Senior prom — this time he had a date. Last dance of the night was Keith Sweat, “Make It Last Forever.”

College tuition would be tight. His mother split her days between factory work and being a home health aide, what they called “private duty.” Working 8–2 at the factory, then 3–11 on private duty. But when the diabetes caught up with her, she lost a toe, went blind — saw only blurry shapes and light. With no money in his pocket, Corey headed down to Virginia Union University. He stole books from the bookstore and went homeless for half a semester — meaning he was an off-campus student, meaning he couldn’t eat in the dining hall. So he would steal from grocery stores — things he wasn’t proud of.

But the journalism major taught him to write, choose a subject, qualify the story, talk to both parties, and tell it from both aspects.

Graduation came in the early aughts, the same year his mom died. The night before her passing, she coughed and sneezed really hard. She went to the bathroom on herself. Not No. 2, just wet. He said, “I have to change you.” She resisted, wanted to rest. He said, “All right.” Next morning, she was unresponsive — sugar level almost in a coma. Corey called an ambulance and, while they came, changed his mother’s underwear. That’s a hard thing for a man to do. No son wants to change his mother’s underwear, but she couldn’t go to the emergency room like that.

Four years — that’s how long it took Corey to read the Bible cover to cover. He set a goal and accomplished it. Admittedly, he skipped around a little bit. His favorite verse was Philippians 4:13: “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” He read it and comprehended it, but when it applied to his life, he got it on a whole ’nother level.

For example, his work at Yale. He was going over to Whitney Avenue to bid on a dining-hall job. He had to be at the Davenport kitchen by 11:30 a.m., but by the time he finished his bid paperwork, it was already 11:15. Mind you, he walks with a limp from a long-ago car accident. And he was like, How am I gonna get all the way across campus on time? So he started walking and reciting the verse. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me. He swiped in at 11:30 precisely.

Now, Corey’s first job out of college — going through insurance files, scanning them into a database — hadn’t been exciting. He got tired of sitting at a desk every day. On a whim, he found work going door to door getting businesses a flat rate for electricity. That was strenuous, with a train commute that began at 5 a.m. His internship at a local newspaper marked the extent of his journalism career. And a stint as a substitute teacher for seventh- and eighth-graders — not an easy age group — paid only $50 a day.

But from the get-go, when his mother-in-law introduced Corey to her manager, the Yale job felt like family. And the pay was good. Take out the trash. Work in the dish room. Keep the floors clean. Compost — that is, separate the food waste from the other trash. Sometimes doing the same task for weeks got stale, so the workers would switch it up.

Often, they shared a family meal. They sat down together and ate the food they had cooked: healthy meals, vegan dishes, a salad bar. And, Corey being diabetic, that worked for him.

Bidding on jobs took him all over campus. Yale was divided into a bunch of residential clusters called colleges, each with its own dining hall. He had worked at many of them — Davenport, Morse, Branford, and Saybrook — by the time he landed a steady position at Calhoun College.

The backbone of Yale: That was his co-workers in a nutshell. Without staff and the people behind the scenes, the university couldn’t thrive. There’d be chaos if the students came to eat and his crew wasn’t there, and he loved the work. One simple “Hi, how ya doing?” could mean a big difference to a student. Seeing people every day, they opened up. He was invited to a gospel-choir performance at Battell Chapel. Tired at the end of his shift, he was ready to go home. Instead, after a hard day, the gospel choir was refreshing. The young woman who invited him was in tears; she told him, “I view you as a father figure.”

Some of these students were thousands of miles from everyone they knew and loved. He remembered having been in their shoes at Virginia Union and knew they might not have anyone around to reassure them. He knew that being able to open up and say, “Yeah, it’s been a hard week,” might help them. They had a lot of fun at work, but their main concern was to attend to students, and Corey took that seriously.

They were privileged students — most of them rich and white, but not all. Some were from countries worse off than New Haven. But every once in a while, seeing them come through, he’d recall the day his high school Spanish teacher held him after class. He had been 16 years old at the time. Miss Moniello had looked him in the eye and said, “Corey, you’re a straight kid. You follow the rules. Eventually you’re gonna have to learn how to break a rule.” His mother had always instilled in him that he should do the right thing, and now an authority figure was urging him to rebel? His mind was blown.

Once upon the 2010s, there was a place called Yale. Beautiful buildings were connected by stone paths, cast-iron gates, and border walls of sturdy masonry. Each room was full of curious hearts — souls hungry to learn. Yale owned so many gorgeous buildings and works of art that one might say beauty was its property. Sterling Library alone had 2,000 unique stained-glass or printed-glass panels — fitting for an institution whose Latin motto meant “light and truth.”

Reunion weekend. On a Sunday in May at 11:30 a.m., the Calhoun dining staff had completed their work for the day. Cleaning up after the festivities ended, Corey was thinking, Should I leave now and take half a day? Because the shift was supposed to end at three, he thought, Well, stay till noon to make it an even number.

That’s when the knock came at the door. No one wanted to open it; they had already finished up, but Corey relented. Standing there was a Black man alongside a girl of about 10. The stranger said, “Hi, I used to be a student here. Can I show my daughter where I used to eat?” Corey let him in. There, in the empty dining hall, the alumnus started telling his daughter about the removal of names. He told her how, in his undergrad years, Black students like himself had wanted the name Calhoun removed from the college. He explained to his daughter that John C. Calhoun grew up in the late 1700s believing that slavery was a moral good. He brought those beliefs with him from the South to attend Yale. He brought those beliefs to the U.S. Senate, where Calhoun opposed abolition and led an ardently pro-slavery legislative agenda. He brought those beliefs to the White House, first as vice-president, then secretary of State.

Father told daughter these things. In this empty dining hall, Corey and the workers heard and, at times, joined in. The stranger welcomed this, explaining how Yale had removed Calhoun’s stained-glass portrait — not the whole thing, just the part where a Black man in shackles knelt at Calhoun’s feet.

Then father led daughter to look at the small stained-glass windows. They went in sequence, he explained. First, a picture of a tree. Next, a house. Next, enslaved people picking cotton. Corey thought, No, they don’t show that. I been working here a long time, I ain’t seen nothing like that. But the father invited Corey to check out the window beneath which he had eaten his college meals. You see, the windows are small and a little high up, and Corey’s vision is blurry. Like his mother before him, he has diabetes. Corey needed glasses — still does. So Corey leaned in close and saw it for the first time: African Americans with cotton bales on their heads. One of them is smiling, looking peaceful. It’s an oppressive image that the father had felt ill about. Now seeing it, Corey felt ill too. He thought, Oh, that can’t be here. That’s not right. No, no, no. Because it was deliberate that these were African American people; one had a smile on her face.

After that, when Corey came into work, the image stared at him, eating away at his subconscious. Like you think someone’s watching you — that feeling of eyes on your back, eyes on your shoulders, eyes on your neck. Before, hearing students debate whether to rename the college, he had thought, That’s their fight, let them deal with that, I don’t want no trouble. But now there was the window greeting him daily when he swiped into work, looming as he rolled the heavy compost bin.

A week later, Corey thought, That thing has to come down. It was God’s work. Not planned or premeditated. All he wanted was to get a paycheck and take care of his family. But instead he went and found a broomstick, climbed up on a heater, and smashed the window panel.

Twenty-seven pieces of glass fell into the moat outside — the grassy area separating the wall from the sidewalk. Inside, an old lady said, “Oooh-oooh!”

The production manager was like, “Dude, you just destroyed Yale’s property.”

Corey said, “It looks a lot better now.”

Then he headed for the locker room. When he was scruffy, people often disengaged. But when he was clean-shaven and made eye contact, people would say “hello” first. So, as cops searched the building for him, Corey went and shaved. A co-worker came into the locker room like, “Our general manager is looking for you.” Corey said, “I bet she is.”

The authorities questioned him. He was composed, honest. He didn’t try to cover anything. He accepted responsibility. The sergeant said, “Yo, son, I’ma have to slap cuffs on you for this.” Corey put out his wrists, calmly, and said, “Okay, here you go.” The two arresting officers were joined by 15 more. They investigated the scene as Corey went to jail.

Resign from the job — that was the union representative’s advice. Corey agreed to never pursue Yale for having been a hostile work environment. Yale agreed not to seek restitution for its destroyed property. Corey signed his letter of resignation and decided, Okay, I’ll move on with my life. He didn’t want a felony hanging over his head for breaking a window.

The rest is a matter of public record, court record. He lost his job, was charged with a felony, was given a “promise to appear” in court, and then was released after three hours in custody.

His family was all down on him. His baby brother, Mitch, said, “How could you be so stupid to let a picture on the wall cause you to lose your job?” That is, until Corey’s phone started ringing — area codes from Texas, North Carolina. “It’s such and such from Fox News, from NBC, from Democracy Now!” After the media frenzy, Corey went from being the biggest dumbass in the family to “maybe it was good that you did that.” Still, his family wanted Corey to do two things: offer a letter of apology and cry his soul out and beg for his job back. About the second, he decided, Fuck no. About the first? He wrote a five-sentence letter of apology. Using the skills he’d let deteriorate over the years, he expressed each sentence, line by line, the word choice, the narrative description … He hadn’t written since college. There was a big picture of what he wanted to say: I’m sorry for what I did. Now, he had five sentences to paint that picture. Here are two of them: “I want to express remorse for my barbaric actions. Yale College, I truly do love all of you.” Off it went to Calhoun College. But then he wondered, Barbaric actions? Really? Yes and no. If you destroy something, that’s barbaric. But while it was never a good idea to destroy property, if he were in that situation a million times over, he’d do the same thing every time.

A movement that was already in place had stagnated. The students, prestigious alums, and even tenured faculty had been protesting for months — in truth, for years and even decades — to change the name. If Yale didn’t listen to them, why were they gonna listen to a blue-collar worker? But if he had merely spoken out, Corey was sure the window would still be there today.

Soon, Yale renamed Calhoun College. Now it’s Grace Hopper College, Yale’s first residential college honoring a woman. Soon, Yale announced it would commission artist Barbara Earl Thomas to create a stained-glass replacement.

All of this made Corey wonder why something so easily resolved became so complex. It’s almost as though Yale wanted the name, the negative buzz.

Corey’s second criminal hearing came on July 26, 2016. Out on the courthouse steps, Black Lives Matter was present. Unidad Latina en Acción was present. They were all chanting, “Change the name! Change the name!” At the security checkpoint, one guard handed out coffees to her crew as they chatted. “What the hell are they doing out there?” “There’s a whole bunch of protesters, chanting and shit.”

“Hats off in the courtroom,” the court officer called.

On one bench, a bug-eyed dude rambled about his cigarette addiction.

The stenographer complained about the judge’s tardiness. “Sometimes he doesn’t come out till after eleven,” she said. “That’s why I shouldn’t have put my money in the meter.”

On another bench, Corey sat unmoving — the gait of anticipation.

The docket began. First, a second-degree burglary. Next, a violation of a protective order. Guilty pleas were logged. “So noted, so ordered.” And then, all criminal charges against Corey were dropped.

When Corey walked out, about half the courtroom stood and left with him. He hadn’t realized: Deans and students had been there all morning in quiet support. Outside, people had posters and banners with his name on them. Some posters said “Menafee = Rosa Parks.” News reporters with cameras pounced. “Do you want your job back?” one asked. A protester shouted, “No! He doesn’t want a job from that racist institution!” Corey went on record then and there: “I want my job back.” Soon, Yale went on record, too: “If he wants his job back, we’d love to have him.” That’s how Corey’s dining-hall position was reinstated — through the press.

That summer, Corey attended the Hillside reunion like usual. One friend said, “Ey, man, come over here. Yo, what you did, man, we gonna give you a clap for that. We gonna give you some recognition.”

Walking the streets of New Haven, Corey got nods and thumbs up from folks — even police.

Little kids, too, said: “I wanna thank you, you’re a hero.”

When he returned to Yale, a stranger approached and told him: “It’s good to have you back.”

A dining-hall manager: “I don’t agree with what you did. But, as a white man, I respect it. I understand why you did it.”

A passerby: “Hey, you’re the guy who broke the glass. Aw, man, I appreciate you.”

A young lady at Stiles, the dining hall where he then worked: “You’re so awesome.”

And to me, as we sat in a dimly lit bar having the conversations that led to this tale, he said, “Students had been protesting for months, years, about the Calhoun name … Just break it. You can’t live in fear of doing things.”

Today, four years after my first interview with Corey, monuments to antebellum slavery are being toppled nationwide. Students who were in the freshman class at Yale when Corey broke the window have now graduated. Next fall, there will be a new crop of students on campus who won’t know the story behind that now-empty glass panel. It seems an appropriate moment to write this history down.

Corey had no guidebook for the revolution, no committee of peers, no consecrated elder telling him, “Go! Now is the time for breaking!” He didn’t sit around waiting for permission to address something injurious. He didn’t engage with the notion that There’s a time and a place — some sense that an appropriate moment for redress would magically present itself in the future. No, the time for breaking was a matter of his gut, integrity, and grace.

Corey risked his livelihood to stand in dignity. And, in doing so, he brought Yale closer to its credo: “Lux et Veritas” (Light and Truth). Destructive as it was, his action created something powerful: an empty rectangle where more light could flow.

Corey Couldn’t Take It Anymore