Today is May 1st known to most all Southerners has May Day. The tradition of May Day goes back centuries to a pagan celebration marking the midpoint between the spring equinox and summer solstice and thus meant to celebrate spring and fertility. The celebration was brought to America and was a mainstay event on the campuses of many southern women’s colleges in the 1800s and 1900s.
Many of us have memories of the May Queen and her court in billowing white dresses twirling the ribbons around and around the May Pole. In thinking of Robeson County, my mind would automatically spring back to thoughts of Flora Macdonald college in Red Springs, NC.
The college started as Red Springs Seminary in 1896 and in 1903 was renamed the Southern Presbyterian Conservatory of Music. In 1914 it was finally changed to Flora Macdonald College in memory of the Scottish heroine. After Flora Macdonald College merged with Maxton’s Presbyterian Junior College to form St. Andrews College the campus was used for Vardell Hall and then later Robeson County Day School a private school which is now is known as Highland Academy.
From the very beginning of the school in the late 1890s the May Queen and her court would gather on the front lawn for the May Day celebration event.
Growing up I thought of May Day as a Scottish celebration like the highland games. That was until I became a student at UNC Pembroke and began work on my honor’s college project Bridging the Generations, a look at the history of UNC Pembroke. I learned from talks with Linda Oxendine and Mary Alice Pinchbeck Teats, who grew up on the campus, that May Day was a big celebration on the campus in the 1940s. Known then as Pembroke College it was the gathering spot for most of the Native American schools in the county for a daylong celebration. In addition to the May Pole ceremony there were field games and time for frolicking with those you might only see once a year.
My son attended Prospect Elementary located right outside of Pembroke and they held a May Day celebration each year. Each grade level would present a son and dance and the cap stone would be the May Day Queen and her court going around and around the pole.
I also found an interesting picture from circa 1910 of a May Day celebration on the Lumber River in downtown Lumberton. It was probely taken at the Town Commons area which is located at the intersection of Fifth Street and the Lumber River. The Town Commons was donated by General John Willis when he donated a lot for the courthouse.
So once again I found that many traditions in Robeson County are not exclusive to a particular race. Even through many of us will not make a trip around the May Pole today we can take a few minutes to think back on the memories of over a century of Robeson County girls making that journey. Please share your memories of May Day as I love to hear from my readers. Remember we all have the solemn duty to preserve our history.
Photographs courtesy Native American Cooperative Ministry, UNC Chapel Hill Library, St. Andrews Presbyterian University, UNC Pembroke and Historic Robeson.