An Independence Commencement: How Baylor's Earliest Graduates Celebrated

Baylor University Commencement party invitation, 1859

One of The Texas Collection’s earliest records of Baylor Commencement, dated 1859. The “managers” of the party, the Erisophians and Philomathesians, were prominent (and often rival) literary societies that began when Baylor was in Independence.

We introduced Margaret Hall Hicks, a Baylor alumna from the 1870s, this summer in our “Looking Back at Baylor: Simple Pleasures in Independence” post. We encourage you to read it for a view of Christmas celebrations in Baylor’s early years. Pretty different from Christmas on 5th Street, but as Hicks said, they enjoyed their Yuletide festivities “to the fullest.”

Now we look to Hicks’ remembrances of Independence again as another Baylor Commencement approaches. December’s commencement isn’t nearly as large as the spring celebration, but every graduation is an exciting day for the Baylor family. But what did Commencement look like back in Independence? For starters, people came from all over Texas, the celebrations lasted a week, and included the examination period. (Students spoke recitations that essentially were their final exams. Hey, class of 2012—aren’t you glad you didn’t have oral examinations for all of your classes?)

Baylor University Commencement invitation, 1888

The invitation hails the 1888 ceremony as Baylor’s 42nd commencement, but Baylor actually did not graduate any students until 1854, when the Board of Trustees voted to award Stephen Decatur Rowe his degree. This invitation is a good example of the deteriorating effects of tape on paper.

Hicks’ memoir, Memories of Ancestors, tells us that in 1866, “Commencement Week was the gala time of the whole year. People from all over the state made their plans to attend the Commencement of the two Baylor schools, and the little town of Independence was taxed to its utmost, both the hotels and private homes, to care for the great number of visitors.”

Of course, in Baylor’s early years, the university’s students all hailed from Texas (although many students’ families probably hadn’t been in the state for very long). But people came from all over the state to attend the fine university. That was a feat by itself, considering the small size of the school and the large size of Texas!

Baylor University Commencement in Carroll Chapel and Library, 1920s

Commencement was held in Carroll Chapel before the building burnt in 1922. This might have been one of the last graduation ceremonies hosted in what is now simply Carroll Library (and the home of The Texas Collection).

“Relatives of the students felt it a duty as well as a pleasure to attend Commencement exercises in the schools in which their children were pupils. So we had all kinds of visitors for this season. Very fashionable people from Galveston and Houston, moderately dressed people from the small towns and the country around Independence, and pioneer people with their primitive styles from the northern part of the State. Of course, we found much delight in seeing and mingling with all of these people. Many of them stayed in the rooms with us, and we thought it no hardship to sleep three or four in a bed or on a pallet on the floor that the visitors might have our beds.”

In addition to the public examinations, students held debates and gave speeches. Every night of Commencement Week, there was some kind of program, with the younger Baylor primary school students participating as well as the university students. Baylor University and Baylor Female College took turns hosting the “entertainments,” which culminated with a “grand Senior Concert.” On the last night of Commencement Week, the faculty and students of Baylor University hosted a party for the faculty and students of Baylor Female College.

Baylor University Commencement, 1966

Judge Baylor watches over the soon-to-be graduates of 1966 as they process into Waco Hall.

This “crowning event of the season” was held in the Burleson Domicile, which was President Rufus C. Burleson’s home and a dormitory for male students. The octagonal shape of the building created nooks that were perfect for courting on the third floor veranda, as Hicks tells us: “The veranda was furnished with chairs and benches, dimly lighted, just the place to fill young heads with thoughts of love and romance. Many of the young men and maidens, knowing this would be the last meeting of the happy school days, plighted their troth, which resulted in the future marriages of some of the best people of our state.” Well, that sounds familiar—plenty of marriage proposals still happen on or around Commencement day at Baylor! And we like to think that the best people in the state (and the world!) come here.

Students (and their families) come to Baylor Commencement from all over the world now, and the official Commencement ceremonies don’t span a week anymore. But the thrill of sending new Baylor graduates out to “fling the green and gold afar” hasn’t changed since Baylor graduated its first student in 1854. Congratulations, class of 2012!

This entry was posted in Baptist history, Baylor at Independence, Baylor Female College, Baylor University, Carroll Chapel, Commencement, Margaret Hall Hicks, That Good Old Baylor Line, Waco, Washington County Texas. Bookmark the permalink.

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