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.

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