Anniversary Debates

From left to right: 1899, 1903, 1909, 1915 Anniversary Debaters
From left to right: 1899, 1903, 1909, 1915 Anniversary Debaters

Anniversary Debates Dominated Wake Social Scene Beginning in 1864. Anniversary Day was the social event of the year.

Bright lights, Pretty Girls, Stimulating Speeches Marked the Day

By Nan Lacy Harris
Old Gold & Black, February 4, 1944

Lights were bright in the Society Hall. Wake Forest men had waited long for this our. The orations were over and the speakers triumphantly bore a blushingly proud girl on each arm. The doors had been thrown open between the Society Halls and the crowd roamed from one to the other, not having anything particularly to do but seemingly enjoying the reception immensely.

Facility wives reigned over the punchbowl whose contents rapidly became depleted only to be filled again. The popular girl excitedly filled out a lengthy date list, sneaking a glance out the corner of her eye to see the impression she was making on the other members of her sex. The evening dress that mother had spent long weary hours on in preparation for this event now trailed unheeded under the feet of the crowd. She could hardly wait to get back to Meredith to tell the unlucky girls what they had missed. She was in her glory! Her escort was proud. . . .proud of his girl, proud of his rarely worn evening clothes, proud that this important social event, Anniversary Day of 1909 had been a success.

First Anniversary Observation

Anniversary Day had not always been a great day. Not until 1864 was the anniversary of the founding of the literary societies, Philomathesian and Euzelian, observed. In 1872 this celebration which formerly had consisted of speeches and a reception in each Society Hall was made a more important event by the addition of debates. [Click to read Minutes of 1872 Debate] The debates were held in the afternoon and the orations in the evening. Wake Forest College produced many accomplished orators in is day and on this occasion they had a marvelous chance to display their power and skill in the forensical world. The spirit of rivalry between the two societies was extremely keen. Each society was determined to out-do the other.

“The anniversary celebration is an occasion in some respects the most important of the year. It is one in which the individuality of the student becomes more prominent, untrammeled by rulings of higher authorities. It is a time under the orderings and management of the students, more especially, and affords them an opportunity to try their strength, unsupported by the hands that have led them-and their weakness too, if you has any.” The Student, March 1883

Elaborate Preparation

Preparations for Anniversary were elaborate. Months before the great occasion members of the both societies vied eagerly for the enviable places as speaker and debaters. Those who were the ablest speakers won these places and began immediately to work on their orations and debates.

By the first of February, the students were prepared for Anniversary Day, one of two most important social events of the College. Anniversary Day, June Commencement and Society Day in the fall were the three times that the students could invite girls to the campus.

Not only did the College look forward to the day with happy anticipation, but also the townspeople of Wake Forest . . especially the young girls. People from the surrounding countryside left their farms and drove the family buggies into town. Often Anniversary was attended by a state legislator, a venerable court judge, or even a governor. It was an event that appealed to everyone who know Wake Forest.

“It is in the societies that oratory is cultivated. Here 'steel meets steel,' mind is brought into contact with mind, and the most powerful efforts of each are thus called forth. The rules of logic and rhetoric learned in the too often dry text-books, are put into practice in the literary societies. It is only by such exercises that they can ever be of any practical benefit to the possessor. In the department of oratorical training, the literary societies are simply of inestimable value.” The Student, February 1884

Debates Were Stimulating

When the day of celebration has arrived, the debaters were ready and the orators had prepared their speeches. Memorial Hall filled to capacity. The debates were stimulating and engrossing. The orations were often monotonous and unoriginal. They were for the most part endured rather than enjoyed by the audience. Sometimes however, they were interesting, as in the case of John B. Spilman who spoke at the 1890 Anniversary. His oration, Israel’s Political Redeemer” held the audience spellbound for nearly thirty minutes. Those who heard that speech never forgot it.

Although the orations were never as popular as the debates, the orators had one advantage over the debaters. Before the speeches the young orators were conducted down the aisle of Memorial Hall in the midst of thunderous applause. The debaters were deprived of this fanfare.

“Governor Chas. B. Aycock, State Auditor Dixon, and Mr. Archibald Johnson, editor of Charity and Children, judged the anniversary debate.” The Student, March 1903

Peak of Celebration

The peak of the celebration came at the social gathering in the society halls after the orations were finished. Here the feminine guests of the students had the chance to shine. The girl not only dated her inviter but his close friends as well. She met the faculty; she conversed with students; she showed off her corsage of American Beauty roses. The reception lasted until midnight. At this late hour, the special train could often be heard blowing its whistle for those girls who wished to return to Raleigh.

This is a picture of Anniversary Day until well after the turn of the century. With the advent of the more exciting social life and modern transportation, the celebration gradually lost its former social significance. The Old Gold and Black reflected this lack of interest when it ran the headline in the February 20, 1918 issue, “Misses Missing in Celebration of Anniversary.” The story followed up this half-hearted event “Anniversary proved an enjoyable occasion in spite of the fact that we miserably missed the usual large number of misses.”

In 1925, for the first time the Anniversary of the founding of the societies was held on the first Monday in February in order to come on the same day as the anniversary of the beginning of the College. IN the process, the name of the celebration was changed to Founder’s Day. In this year only one-half day was given to society activities.

“Anniversary constitutes the main social event of the year, and is the one time during the Spring session when it is considered proper for the freshmen to escort young ladies about the college grounds.” Old Gold & Black, February 22, 1919

Other Activities Added

In the year 1926 saw other activities added to the day. The interest in the orations and debates consequently was weakened. An outside orator was invited. This constituted the main attraction of the society events. Gradually the society events were diminished still further. The mighty audience which had formerly crowded into Memorial Hall now had dwindled into an audience of perhaps twenty-five or more. No longer were special preparations make and the subject of the debate was often not decided upon until two weeks before the debate. With the change of date of the celebration, the social receptions, which had for so long been the highlight of the occasion, were abandoned. The social fraternities which had been instituted in 1922 now had taken over the social activities of the College.

It was no longer the old anniversary that was being celebrated. The Golden Age of Anniversary was over.

Read an account of the 1882 Anniversary Debate on Universal Suffrage »