Monday, May 25, 2015

State Normal and the Woman's Betterment Association

In the late 1800s, the state of education in North Carolina was bleak. The illiteracy rate was 36% (compared to 14% nationwide). Per pupil spending on education was one of the lowest in the nation, and the average teacher's salary was less than $24 per month - about half the national average. The school year was only 60 days (compared to an average of 135.7 across the United State). In an 1883 report, North Carolina State Superintendent of Public Instruction John C. Scarborough placed much of the blame on the lack of proper teaching (also known as "normal") training. Scarborough wrote, "The larger number of teachers of the public schools [are] non-progressive, knowing nothing of any studies except such as they had imperfectly learned at the ordinary schools and nothing of the improved methods of teaching ... They were simply school keepers, nothing more."

First graduating class of State Normal and Industrial School, 1893
With the chartering of the State Normal and Industrial School (now UNCG) by the General Assembly in 1891, North Carolina politicians and educators created an institution specifically aimed at training female teachers for public schools in the state. When the doors to the school opened on October 5, 1892, 176 students enrolled to learn how to teach and improve the state's educational opportunities. In fact, of the 717 women who graduated from the school during its first 22 years, all but 33 went on to teach for some period of time in North Carolina public schools.

While the students were learning how to improve their teaching, the graduates were still being forced to teach in sub-par facilities - often one-room wooden school houses which educational leader James Y. Joyner deemed to be "a lion in the path of rapid progress." A 1902 address to the student body by the institution's founding president Charles Duncan McIver particularly struck the students. He stridently urged them to "labor as mothers and teachers to provide education" in the state. As a result, they formed an organization known as the Woman's Betterment Association, a group which sought specifically to improve North Carolina school buildings.

No. 2 Williamsburg schoolhouse (Rockingham County, NC), late 1800s
The motives which led the students of State Normal to organize the Woman's Betterment Association are best expressed in one of their early informational bulletins: "Realizing that under present condition, and with the present surroundings of the average school-house, it is impossible to train the youth of the state properly, and realizing further, that unless the women of the state take hold of this very important matter it will remain neglected, the students of the college have organized themselves and call upon the other women of the state to join them in making attractive and habitable the houses in which our children spend five days of each school week."

With the Woman's Betterment Association leading the charge, educational leaders across the state were charged with examining existing schoolhouses and making recommendations for improvements (or replacements). Viola Boddie, a charter faculty member at State Normal and head of the department of Latin, was one of the professionals sent to survey the educational landscape. She recalled "traveling around the state in an open buggy, pulled by a mule, observing rustic schools with spaces between the logs wide enough to 'throw a cat through if not a dog.'"
New No. 2 Williamsburg schoolhouse (Rockingham County, NC), 1906

Only four years after the creation of the Woman's Betterment Association, 1,133 new school buildings were constructed in rural areas across North Carolina at a cost of $490,272. The total value of the entirety of public school property across the state almost doubled in that short four-year period. According to a 1906 state report, these improvements were a direct result of the work of the members of the Woman's Betterment Association, who "became effective lobbyists for every educational case."

Monday, May 18, 2015

Campus May Queens

Each year that a May Day celebration was held on campus, a May Queen was elected. From the biggest festivals of 1912 and 1916 to the final year of 1954, a May Queen was present. She was typically a senior elected by her classmates who served as the mascot of the event and in the later years, as the main attraction.

May Day Court, 1938
During the massive fetes of 1912 and 1916, the May Queen rode in the procession on a float beside her king. She and the King of May presided over the festivities of the day, such as plays and dances. After 1916, there was an inevitable break in the celebrations due to the eminent war. When the May Day festivities returned in the 1920s, they were never as elaborate as those prior to the war. The May Queen and her court became the focus of these later festivals.

May Queen, 1950

After 1916, May Day occasionally featured plays, parades, and dances, with the Queen and her court as the constants. The Queen would be crowned while her court looked on. In some years, the court sat on an outside stage in Peabody Park while dancers or even plays were performed in front of them.

Virginia Ambrose, May Day Queen of 1940

The May Day celebrations officially ended in 1954 after being abolished by the senior class. May Day was considered too close to commencement and was a time consuming and expensive endeavor. The seniors had other responsibilities as graduation loomed near. The only thing to survive the May Day tradition was indeed the May Queen (name changed to Beauty Queen), who would be elected with her court in the spring.

This blog was created by Jennifer Brooks, volunteer at the Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives, April, 2015.

Monday, May 11, 2015

Early May Day Parades

For the first fifty years, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro (UNCG) celebrated May Day.  May Day revels were based on ideas of Renaissance England, where the first day of May signified the end of winter. Traditional May Day fetes were filled with activities such as decorating a May Pole, crowning a queen, and playing games. The campus festivals of the State Normal and Industrial College (now UNCG) were similar, especially in the early years when elaborate May Day events were held every four years.
May Day Court of 1916

The school’s May Day fetes of 1912 and 1916 were more extravagant than their successors. Tickets were sold, and there were announcements and advertisements in newspapers across the state. The entire campus was decorated, from the athletic field (now Petty Science Building) to Peabody Park. Special programs were created, detailing the five continuous hours of entertainment as well as the parade route. Students performed shows such as “Hue and Cry after Cupid,” “Robin Hood,” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” in different parts of campus.

“Hue and Cry after Cupid” Float, 1912

The beginning procession introduced onlookers to the festivals and kicked off the largest May Day celebrations of 1912 and 1916. It featured decorated floats and included most of the costumed participants. The parade route started in downtown Greensboro and continued down College Avenue to the athletic field. In the 1916 festival, the parade traveled from the north end of College Avenue and continued south, moving past the Students’ Building, the Main Building (now Foust Building), and the McIver Memorial Building. Heralds began the parade, appearing before the actors and dancers. Shepherds and shepherdesses, milkmaids, and other costumed students walked beside the floats, which were ornately decorated and exemplified the Renaissance theme. The May Queen, elected by fellow students and the “mascot” of the event, arrived on her own float with her king by her side.  Players from the different tableaux rode and walked in the procession, and the May Queen had her own float. Spectators from all over the state stood along College Avenue to watch the decorative floats and costumed performers.

Chimney Sweeps, 1912

Processions also occurred at May Day fetes in the following years, though never as large as those of 1912 and 1916. There were parades in the 1920s and 1930s, but they had shorter routes through campus and less extravagant floats. Perhaps, World War I contributed to the fact that the later festivals were not as elaborate.  Eventually, the parades came to an end; perhaps because the celebrations were smaller or were too expensive to continue.

This blog was created by Jennifer Brooks, volunteer at the Martha Blakeney Hodges Special Collections and University Archives, April, 2015.

Monday, May 4, 2015

Ringing "Glad Tidings": A History of the University Bell

On October 5, 1892, when the doors of the State Normal and Industrial School officially opened for instruction, the women enrolled were called to classes by the chiming of the University Bell. Originally, the bell stood near the location of the current Alumni House. It was used wake students in the morning, call them to breakfast and other meals, and alert them to the start of the school day. Ezekiel Robinson was typically the person tasked with ringing the bell during the earliest years of the school.

Ezekiel Robinson with the campus bell, 1910
Standing near the site of the current Alumni House, the bell also was used in cases of emergencies or special announcements. In 1897 when the State Normal students learned that the school was receiving increased appropriations from the state legislature (twice the amount received the previous year!), "a hundred or more young ladies started for the Normal bell to ring out the glad tidings." Students kept the bell ringing for nearly half an hour.

When the Brick Dormitory caught fire in the middle of the night in 1904, the bell rang to wake sleeping students and get them to safety. Josephine Scott, a student from Alamance County, ran to ring the bell and hasten the evacuation. After ringing the bell a few times, the rope used broke. According to a classmates' recollection, Scott then climbed the wooden frame of the bell tower to ring the bell with her hands until all of the students had safely left the building.

After the destruction of Brick Dormitory and the construction of Spencer, the bell was moved to a site closer to the new residence hall (across College Avenue from where Jackson Library sits today). When electric bells were installed in the campus buildings, the use of the bell on a daily basis was discontinued. But students still used it as a meeting place for groups and celebrations. On student government election nights, the winning group would meet at the bell to begin their festivities. 

Then, on a Saturday night in January 1938, the bell was taken down and tucked away in a storage room on campus. There it sat until members of the Class of 1923 decided it needed a more prominent location and a more prominent role in ongoing campus life and traditions.

The bell hanging in Students Anniversary Plaza, 1968
When the Class of 1923 held their 30th reunion in 1953, the class president implored that something be done to preserve "a certain bell dear to the memory of the alumnae." Small paper bells were distributed at the class luncheon, and alumnae were encouraged to contribute funds to the "bell fund." Shortly after that reunion, the bell was removed from storage and placed in a more prominent location at the college entrance from Spring Garden Street.  One small change was made to the bell, however. The clapper was removed because administrators "felt that placing the bell intact, so close to Curry School [the teaching school on campus], might be too great a temptation to the Curry children."

In 1967, to commemorate the 75th anniversary of the university's opening, the student body of 1967 donated $15,000 to build Students’ Anniversary Plaza at the corner of Spring Garden and College Avenue (the site of founding president Charles Duncan McIver's home). A brick "modernistic arch" was designed by Charles Bell, superintendent of ground at UNCG. The bell was bronzed and mounted under the arch in 1968.

The bell remained in that location until 1987 when it was removed for restoration. It is currently stored in the Alumni House, but the bell is brought out for every commencement. At the end of the ceremony, the bell is rung to honor the new graduates. As it first rang to welcome students to the new State Normal and Industrial School, it now rings to honor our newest alumni.