A History of Commencement at Emory

Atlanta Pipe Band

"The Feast of Reason and the Flow of Soul"

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. Immediately preceding the president is the bedel, carrying the University’s silver and gold mace, symbol of the institution as a corporate body of scholars. At the same time, deputy marshals begin to lead in the faculty from two directions, and faculty marshals lead in the degree candidates from every school. The processions converge on the Quadrangle from all directions, like some grand medieval army on parade, bright gonfalons waving aloft, faculty resplendent in antiquated garb, black-cloaked graduates regaled in colored hoods distinctive to their degrees. Commencement at Emory once again is underway.

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, Georgia, the festivities have always balanced sobriety with exuberance, and moral earnestness with the air of a high society coming-out. Indeed, for most of Emory’s existence, these exercises have been the occasion for celebrating the entire school’s successes over 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 nineteenth 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 commencement 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 fifteen 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 they listened to young men hold forth on topics like “The Loneliness of Genius,” “Mud,” “The Fear of Growing Old,” “Slander,” and “America, Her Destiny.” “Napoleon” was a subject of considerable interest and demanded the talents of speakers for three years running beginning in 1853.

In the early days these addresses were in English, contrary to the practice at many other institutions. As President A. B. Longstreet argued in 1842, speeches in Latin and Greek were “worthy of the name pedantry, and nothing more.” In spite of his admonishment, some later generations of students undertook to instruct their audiences in the ancient tongues. In 1876 J. N. Barker of Key West, Florida, delivered the salutatory in Latin, and a news reporter remarked in the Covington paper that the address “was highly appreciated by the audience . . . and . . . elicited frequent applause. For all that the audience and some of the trustees knew, he might have been pronouncing a fierce tirade against the college and devoting his hearers to unheard of torments.”

Festive and high-spirited, the atmosphere of commencement week in the last century was much like that of a chautauqua meeting, and the impact of those yearly events on the social and intellectual life of Georgia was profound and enduring. The local newspapers reported both the substance of addresses and the social whirl of the week. A news article on commencement in the Atlanta newspaper in 1851 reported that Bishop George F. Pierce spoke for an hour and a half and held his audience rapt after they had already been sitting for four hours in the midday heat.

It is true—as one observer at an early commencement in Oxford noted—that the early ceremonies lacked the “pomp, and parades, and tinsel, and glare exhibited at most commencements.” Emory commencement to him was “the feast of reason and the flow of soul.” Later, less ascetic generations managed to reconcile pomp with reason and hired the Burns Silver Cornet Band or the Stone Mountain Band to accompany parades of elaborate banners and insignia.

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 also unruly. Some sense of the rowdiness of the crowds can be gained from the understated way in which a news reporter in 1888 remarked that the forerunner of today’s University Chorus performed a post-commencement evening concert before “a large and splendidly behaved audience. . . . The admirable behavior of the audience all the way through was a matter of general comment and congratulations.” 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. Unadorned by academic regalia throughout the nineteenth century, Emory seniors voted only in 1901 to use the academic costume standardized in 1895 by a convention of representatives from schools across the nation. For some reason the 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.

From earliest days, the recognition of significant achievements by persons in various walks of life has been a part of the conferral of degrees. The first honorary degree awarded by Emory College was awarded to the Rev. William H. Ellison. Clergy—both parish clergy and ministers teaching in higher institutions such as Emory—made up the roster of nearly all honorary degree recipients through the early part of this century. Joel Chandler Harris, purveyor of Uncle Remus tales, received the LittD degree in 1902. More recent honorees have included Desmond Tutu, Jimmy Carter, Mikhail Gorbachev, Van Cliburn, Hank Aaron, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Johnnetta Cole, Christiane Amanpour, His Holiness the XIV Dalai Lama, Seamus Heaney, Marion Wright Edelman, Paul Farmer, Bernard Marcus, and Vicente Fox Quesada.

In 1949 Emory’s only graduate to hold the vice presidency of the United States, Alben William Barkley (class of 1900), returned to his alma mater to receive the LLD degree and deliver the commencement address. That commencement was the first Emory event ever televised. The following year the Emory Debate Forum changed its name to the Barkley Forum in honor of the vice president.

The Quadrangle, site of commencement exercises for the past four decades, has come to its place of honor after much experimentation and change. The commencement at Oxford was held out of doors on the green at first, and then in the Methodist church. After the University’s move to Atlanta, Wesley Memorial Church housed the ceremonies for several years. For the first half of the Roaring Twenties, the ravine across Kilgo Circle from Carlos Hall, cleared of underbrush and planted under the supervision of Chancellor Warren Candler’s wife, Antoinette, provided the setting for the exercises.

Ideal for shading audiences from the June sun, the garden for some reason was demoted in 1926, when commencement was held in a tent in front of Fishburne Hall at noon, an event that one participant called “an occasion to be recalled with horror.”

This was not the only hot time at commencement in the history of the University. A newspaper account of the 1891 exercises says, “The only regretful incident during the entire commencement was the burning of the residence of Prof. [H. A. Scomp]. His greatest loss was the destruction of his valuable library.”

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 commencement since 1861—degrees were conferred on all twenty-six 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.

This year, the tradition begun under the oaks and pines of the little town forty miles east of Atlanta will appear vastly different yet curiously similar to the events of long ago. The speeches will be fewer and shorter, the graduates far more numerous, the parking more problematic, the program more streamlined and to the point. Yet the air of celebration and grand accomplishment will remain.

These days the mellow tones of the Atlanta Symphony Brass Quintet alternate with the stir of the Atlanta Pipe Band, led by Emory alumnus Henry D. Frantz Jr. ’71C-’74L. The pipers carry the colors of both Emory University and the University of St. Andrews, Emory’s sister university in Scotland. In recognition of the significant relationship between the two institutions, Pipe Major Frantz has composed “The Emory and Old St. Andrews March” used in the processional.

Months of work by hundreds of University employees will have gone into the preparations, invisible at the moment of pause just before the University marshal steps out. And the years of study and forbearance by the graduates and their families will lie in the past, unsuggested by the expectation in their faces. It has always been so. It is a moment worthy of the grandest designs and highest aspirations of those pioneer educators who laid the first foundation stone under the Georgia pines and oaks.

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