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A Selected History of UM Commencement Ceremonies

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Sunday, May 7, 2017 - 4:46pm


Jennifer Ford

The first “commencement” at the University of Mississippi took place in July 1849 at the end of the new university’s first academic year -- although with no graduates, the institution conferred no degrees. In the words of University historian, Dr. David Sansing, the four-day event surrounding the official program included “sumptuous banquets, a commencement ball, and many speeches..and was a gala celebration." The 1849 address was given by Alexander M. Clayton and Acting University President Albert Taylor Bledsoe. James Jones Quarles was a member of the first graduating class (only fifteen students) in 1851, and he received the very first diploma issued by the university.

The collections of the University of Mississippi's  Department of Archives & Special Collections  contain a copy of the 1866 address given by Judge J.W. Clapp at the institution's first commencement program following the American Civil War. As in 1849, there were no graduates from this first session but surviving members of the class of 1861 (which did not graduate before the War) were invited back to receive their diplomas. The program from the 1873 commencement day bears testament to a period of strife at the University during the period of Reconstruction. Students felt repressed by the administration as they were, in the words of another University historian Allen Cabaniss, “prohibited from mentioning politics…states rights’ and secession were forbidden words.” During one point in the 1873 program one graduate tore up his diploma on the stage in front of Chancellor Waddel in protest of these restrictions.

In 1884, the Board decided to print all diplomas in English instead of Latin, and the class of 1899 was the first to wear the traditional academic regalia. The Board of Trustees abolished the annual commencement ball for the 1901 academic year. Since 1850 the Board had earmarked funds for this event (usually about one hundred dollars) but pressure from outside groups against dancing on the college campus caused a change in this policy. Once the students learned of this action they became agitated, and in April 1901 an editorial in the University of Mississippi Magazine appeared criticizing the Trustees in scathing terms. Students signed petitions, sent statements to newspapers statewide, and generally protested this measure but the Trustees stood their ground.

The tumultuous events of the 1962-1963 academic year regarding integration on campus brought the University of Mississippi into the national spotlight. The riot of September 30-October 1, 1962 which took place on the campus left two men dead and several wounded. James Meredith, the first African American student at the University of Mississippi, finally registered for courses on October 1, 1962 and went on to receive his Bachelor of Arts degree in Political Science during the University's 1963 summer commencement. University historian, Dr. David Sansing described the event: “On August 18, 1963, James Meredith and other candidates for graduation wound their way from the Lyceum through the tree-shaded campus to the Grove where approximately fifty of his friends and family took their places among the hundreds of other friends and families of the graduates.” Among Meredith’s guests were Mrs. Medgar Evers, State President of the NAACP Aaron Henry, and R. Jess Brown (one of Meredith’s attorneys). The event, in the words of University Political Science professor, Russell Barrett, “went off with deceptive simplicity.”

Several illustrious speakers have graced the stage over the course of the University's one hundred and sixty-three previous commencement programs, including: Senator Ted Kennedy in 1978; George H.W. Bush in 1985 (then Vice-President of the United States); author John Grisham in 1994; Donna Shalala in 1997 (then US Secretary of Health and Human Services); Senator Trent Lott in 1998; Senator Thad Cochran in 1999;  author, journalist and historian David Halberstam in 2005; journalist, author and historian Tom Brokaw in 2016; and countless other noteworthy individuals. For its one hundredth and sixty-fourth commencement the University's keynote speaker will be Pulitzer Prize winning author John Meacham.

Featured below are rare archival materials relating to the history of University of Mississippi commencements which are held in the collections of the JD Williams Library's Department of Archives & Special Collections, including a rare copy of Alexander Clayton's 1849 commencement address and an original page from the 1985 summer commencement address given by Mississippi Supreme Court Justice Reuben Anderson, the first African-American graduate of the UM Law School.

1849 UM Commencement Address First page from MS Supreme Court Justice Reuben Anderson's UM Summer Commencement Address