By Allison Schuver, from an interview with Penny Prewitt Cunningham (class of '36)
Each football season, Homecoming was held with cross town rival Howard College (now Samford). An enormous parade was held downtown the day of the game. Each school had floats constructed by campus groups such as Greek organizations. Students were featured on the floats, often in costume and acting out small skits. Most floats were decorated with crepe paper that had to be ordered from out-of-town months in advance, but some were decorated with fresh flowers. Months of preparation were needed.
Some floats were pulled by cars and others by horses. On one occasion, a float was pulled by students because of car trouble. Another year, a small pony was featured in the parade. It was well-known around the city because of its day job—pulling a shoe shine cart. The “shoe shine pony” was scheduled to pull a float in the parade, but the load was too heavy, so students pulled it instead.
In Panthers on the Gridiron, Ben Lewellyn and Peter Star write of the “mammoth” parade that preceded the “Magic City Classic” between BSC and Howard. The previous year's winner would occupy the first half of the parade, and the losers brought up the rear. “Sometimes called the ‘South's Tournament of Roses,' the parade was sponsored by the Junior Chamber of Commerce to encourage sportsmanship and camaraderie between the two schools.” A laudable intent--but if stories of the rivalry are true, the parade did more to aggravate than to assuage ill will. And perhaps that's for the best. After all, traditions are about building community, often by defining one's own group against another. Photos of these parades reveal a willingness to attack, caricature, and lampoon the rival school at all levels: its president, faculty, students, and mascot.
It was long customary at many schools for negative attention to be directed at freshmen as well as the rival team. Folklorist Simon Bronner notes several traditions meant to demean new students, such as requiring them to walk the parade route in their pajamas. But unflattering attention such as this was also considered a means of welcoming the new students into the community. Bronner writes, “[t]he parade showcases student creativity and humor. Freshmen, especially, parade in outlandish costumes, and provide self-mocking floats” (Piled Higher and Deeper 87). To end the festivities, “homecoming often featured a bonfire into which freshmen flung their beanies and thus attained full-fledged student status” (86).
Bronner attributes the rise of college homecoming traditions to the ever-increasing distance between a college and its alumni that resulted from increased geographic mobility. “Spreading quickly during the mobile 1920s, the activities of homecoming were designed to heighten the ‘spirit' of the college and remind one of the values of the college haven. For students, homecoming is an extension of the rituals begun before classes started; for alumni, it is a renewal of old ties” (86).
Recent trends concerning college homecomings are recorded in the pages of The Chronicle of Higher Education. Colleges around the country have seen decreased interest in homecoming festivities, perhaps due to changing student demographics, with more students working and fewer fitting the mold of “traditional” student (4/27/07). Those traditions that remain often become points of contention. In 1994, the Chronicle noted a trend in “unconventional candidates” for the crown (11/9/94). A spate of men campaigning for homecoming queen has prompted some schools to select, rather than elect, a homecoming court (10/16/98); others have simply rewritten the rules to specify that the queen must be a woman (11/19/99). And in 2001, a University of Pittsburgh student distributed pictures of herself topless as part of her campaign to be elected homecoming queen (12/07/01).
For folklorists, the unofficial homecoming activities excite the most interest, so challenges to old traditions are merely opportunities to create new ones. Of particular interest to this website are the customary activities that are maintained and passed down by the students, regardless of administrative support. The parade route is set by college and city officials, but recurring thematic elements on the floats are part of the folk-life of the college. The place and time of the bonfire are set, but what gets flung into the flames is determined by custom and sustained by the will of the group. However, a word of caution regarding the institutionalization of folk processes: In 1912, a group of students at South Dakota State dressed as hobos to escort their rival team onto campus, giving birth to a century-spanning “hobo day” tradition. Let's be careful what we wish for.
- Did the rivalry with Howard continue after 1939?
- Did rivalries form with other schools?
- What replaced the parade in the hearts of BSC students?
- Was there ever a ritual in which freshmen could discard their beanies?
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