Monday, May 12, 2014

Commencement time at State Normal

On Friday, May 9, thousands of newly minted graduates of UNCG participated in their graduation ceremony at the Greensboro Coliseum. This marked the 121st commencement hosted by the institution since its opening as the State Normal and Industrial School in October 1892.

Commencement invitation, 1893
The first commencement ever held at State Normal took place on May 23-24, 1893. Ten women received diplomas. Although the students had been at State Normal for only one year, they were able to graduate in 1893 due to high scores on placement tests. In fact, all but one of the members of the Class of 1893 had already graduated from another college.

The diplomas earned in the earliest years at State Normal, though, were not bachelors degrees. It would not be until 1903 that State Normal would issue bachelors degrees on par with those issued by other colleges. Instead, the degrees earned in 1893 represented completion of a more limited curriculum, more on par with a modern high school program. The diplomas did, however, represent a lifetime license to teach in public schools in North Carolina.

The commencement ceremony featured a number of speakers, including Governor Elias Carr, who opened the ceremony by congratulating the graduates along with the officers of the school on the success of their first year of operation. Rev. T.H. Pritchard then delivered the commencement sermon, which focused on the second chapter of Exodus. George T. Winston, president of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, provided the commencement address on "The Education and Sphere of Women." According to one newspaper report, Winston's address "was a gem, full of solid reason and sound sense."

Finally, State Normal founder and president Charles D. McIver presented the ten students with diplomas and delivered his address to the crowd. McIver congratulated the students, but cautioned them that the diplomas came with added responsibilities, both to their future students and to the state. He warned, "your obligations to the State are greater than they were a year ago ... North Carolina has a right to a return on her investment, and she desires it to come in the form of womanhood, patriotic citizenship, and your very best professional service in the field of education."
The Class of 1893, with McIver and Edwin Alderman

In addition to the ceremony featuring the awarding of the diplomas, the two-day commencement celebration also included music from the school's Glee Club as well as performances by others in the student body. Additionally, the Physical Culture department conducted two demonstrations in the school's Gymnasium (located at the time in the upper level of the Main - now Foust - Building). To conform to standards of propriety, the Physical Culture demonstrations were limited to "lady visitors" who were "admitted upon presentation of cards."

Commencement festivities only grew in the following years, with many of the early commencement attendees noting that President McIver was always excited at commencement time. In 1894, he brought politician William Jennings Bryan to speak at commencement only two years before Bryan launched his first run for the U.S. presidency. Future years also saw famous politicians and prominent academics speak at State Normal's commencement. While the Class of 1893 consisted of only ten women, their commencement ceremony marked the start of a long tradition of graduates who would make major contributions to North Carolina (and beyond).  

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