Around Campus

Ghosts of Commencements past

In combing through the University’s history, we didn’t find any Commencements that were canceled or postponed, like this year. But we did find a couple of Commencements with no graduates and one with people jumping out of windows.

A graduation ceremony in 1917.
University President Edward Kidder Graham leads the 1917 Commencement procession through a student body uniformed for World War I. Photo from North Carolina Collection.

This year, as far as we can tell, will be the first time that the University has postponed a scheduled Commencement. However, there’s been no shortage of unusual Commencement happenings in Carolina’s 226-year history, according to the two-volume “History of the University of North Carolina: 1793-1912″ by Kemp Plummer Battle.

1811: The first Commencement without any graduates. Today, we have graduates with no Commencement, but in 1811 the University had the opposite problem. In its youth, Carolina had an unusually rowdy student body, known for everything from “stealing beehives, removing gates, stoning houses and damaging crops to firing pistols and staging duels.” University trustees sought to curb this unruliness in 1805 with an ordinance enforcing “military discipline” on campus, a move that proved so unpopular that they repealed it later that same year. But the damage was done — many young men had left school and didn’t return. In 1805, the University had only three graduates, four in 1806 and none in 1811, although one person received an honorary degree.

1846: The Commencement panic. From 1837 to 1884, Commencement was held inside in the chapel, also known as Gerrard Hall. One of the building’s features is a balcony supported by slender pillars. At the Commencement of 1846, someone who heard a loud crack feared that one of the supports had broken and cried out, “The gallery is falling!” Panic ensued as the people inside rushed to get out. “Some young men had the pleasure of showing their gallantry by catching young ladies as they jumped from the windows.” The alarm was a false one, and the ceremony soon continued as usual. However, the University added more pillars to support the Gerrard balcony before the next Commencement — just in case.

1865: The only Commencement in the country? You’ll have to take Battle’s word for this one. “It is believed that the University of North Carolina was the only institution of rank, for males or females, which had Commencement exercises in the terrible year of 1865.” This was also the only Commencement with a U.S. Army guard, as 35 members of the 10th Ohio Regiment occupying the postbellum campus were “vigilant for the protection of the property.”

1871-1875: Reconstruction shutdown. The Civil War didn’t shut down campus, but political feuding and a lack of funding during the Reconstruction era did, from 1871 to 1875. When a committee of trustees visited Chapel Hill in 1874, “the campus was in a state of total neglect,” Battle writes. The trustees found extensive damage to windows, roofs and floors and evidence that horses had been stabled in Old West and cows and pigs allowed to graze and forage on campus. “The wall was broken in some places, the gates rotted down, the beautiful shrubbery grazed and broken into … and the old oaks in many places scarred and chopped with the axes of woodchoppers.” When news of the reopening of the University reached Chapel Hill in March of 1875, stalwart supporter Cornelia Spencer (memorialized by the naming of Spencer Residence Hall) climbed to the belfry of South Building on her 50th birthday and “rang and rang the college bell.”

1876: The second Commencement without any graduates. “The Commencement of 1876 revived the memories of the grand ceremonies of old times,” Battle writes “The attendance was large, the addresses of the best, and the weather in temperature and shine of sun perfect.” Only one thing was missing — graduates, as the University had only been in operation since the fall of 1875, following the four-year Reconstruction shutdown.

1883-1910: The Pipe of Peace. One of the oddest Commencement traditions used to take place under the Davie Poplar tree after the ceremony. Here’s Battle’s description of the 1891 observance: “The circle of fine-looking young men, in caps and gowns under the classic tree; the friendly smoking of the ‘Pipe of Peace,’ recalling the counsel of the Tuscaroras and Cherokees.” It’s not clear if this tradition was the forerunner to the 1970s-era “High Noon” gatherings at the Bell Tower.

1842-1972: Commencement Bibles: Each graduate received a free King James Bible, a tradition that continued until 1868, went away for a while then recommenced in 1888 on the initiative of a trustee who was also a Methodist minister. At some point, the gift expanded to include a choice of a Bible for Protestants, Catholics or Jews. The tradition continued until 1972, when a University subcommittee recommended ending the practice because it probably violated the First Amendment.

1843-1937 (?): The Commencement or Senior Ball.The dates on this entry are approximate. We know it goes back at least to 1843 because the North Carolina Collection has an invitation to the 1843 Commencement Ball, with a scribbled note to “bring all the girls.” The Commencement Ball was the highlight of a week of speeches, dances, socials and other gatherings for Commencement. In 1885, bowing to pressure from religious groups opposed to dancing in public buildings, alumni built an off-campus ballroom. The dances came back on campus in 1906, with the opening of Bynum Hall, where they were held until the Tin Can gymnasium was built in the 1920s. The Carolina Story: A Virtual Museum of University History online exhibit has a photo of students attending a Senior Ball there in 1937.

1911: Belated degrees for veterans. Fifty years after most of its students departed to join the Confederate Army, the University conferred diplomas on the veterans “ex speciali gratia” in a special commemorative ceremony.

1917-18 and 1941-45: Wartime and Commencement. Commencements continued throughout both world wars, with many graduates in military uniforms, if they were able to attend. But wartime commencements were different. “We didn’t graduate together this year,” lamented a senior in the 1944 Yackety Yack. “Some of us went through formal graduation exercises; others of us merely went to South Building and left our forwarding addresses for our diplomas. And still others of us interrupted our life at Carolina long before our sheepskins were due. In short, we were a University at war — and we were working more than usual.”