Emory Report

May 30, 2000

 Volume 52, No. 34

Commencement history

The following is excerpted from the essay, "The Feast of Reason and the Flow of Soul," written by University Secretary Gary Hauk.

From the back of the gathered crowd a single bagpipe wails its first martial notes, followed by a roll of drums and a crashing skirl from the rest of the Atlanta Pipe Band. The chief marshal of the University steps out in stately time, followed by the bagpipers, then University trustees, officers and honorary degree recipients.

It has not always looked and sounded like this. True, since the first Commencement in 1840, four years after the founding of Emory College in Oxford, the festivities always have balanced sobriety with exuberance, and moral earnestness with the air of a high society coming-out.

Indeed, for most of Emory's 164 years, these exercises have been the occasion for celebrating the entire school's successes during the previous year as much as for launching a graduating class into the wide world. In fact, the first Commencement had no graduates. It was not until 1841 that this seemingly indispensable ingredient seasoned Commencement for the first time.

In the beginning, as now, oratorical eloquence provided the requisite solemnity to the event, though probably no modern audience could withstand the rigors of four days of speechifying. Commencement week throughout the 19th century began on Sunday morning with a sermon, as befit the flagship school of the Methodist church in Georgia. Sunday afternoon allowed for another sermon, and the evening was given over to recitations by first-year students of famous speeches and poems.

Monday, Sophomore Class Day, began early with more recitations and the awarding of prizes to the best sophomore declaimers, and on Tuesday the juniors held forth in much the same fashion. Not until Wednesday did the seniors have their moment, and it was a long and memorable one.

Consider that until 1880 Commencement week fell in mid-July. Consider, too, that the senior exercises began about 8:30 a.m. with the presentation of original speeches by members of the senior class, followed by the always lengthy baccalaureate or Commence-ment address, the conferral of degrees and, later in the afternoon, an address to the Few and Phi Gamma literary societies by a noteworthy speaker.

Consider, finally, that the dozen or so student speakers held forth for as much as half an hour each (in 1849 all 15 members of the graduating class were assigned speaking roles). Consider all this and you get some idea of the hardiness of those frontier audiences.

As Commencement took on the shape of an academic convocation with the trappings of a social event, the atmosphere became not only festive but sometimes unruly. In 1858 the trustees appointed faculty marshals to quell the boisterousness of the audiences so that speakers could be heard, and the men and women were required "to sit apart according to Methodist ways."

Throughout the years the accretions of tradition have turned the Commencement exercises into the happy ceremony witnessed by modern audiences each May. Un-adorned by academic regalia throughout the 19th century, Emory seniors voted in 1901 to use the academic costume standardized in 1895 by a convention of representatives from schools across the nation. For some reason, caps and gowns never materialized for the Class of 1901; thus, the Class of 1902 was the first at Emory to don the garb without which any Commencement now would be incomplete.

Perhaps no Commencement had more of pathos about it than that of 1867. The years of war had not dealt kindly with Emory-its buildings were used to hospitalize wounded Confederate soldiers. From November 1861 to July 1865, virtually nothing of academic note occurred in Oxford. It took a consummate act of courage for the school to reopen with no endowment and few students in fall 1866. At Commencement the following July-the first Commence-ent since 1861-degrees were conferred on all 26 members of the Class of 1862: all of whom had left to fight, and some of whom rested in graves, victims of war, far from the quiet groves of Oxford.

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