Sesquicentennial Convocation Academic Procession led by Grand Marshall B.F.D. Runk, President Edgar F. Shannon, Jr., and Rector Frank Rogers. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

With this month’s official launch of the Bicentennial celebration at UVA, the school’s community finds itself with an opportunity to reflect on the storied history of the institution and on the future. Take a look back at how the University has celebrated those big milestones in the past.

The Semi-Centennial: July 1, 1874

To celebrate 50 years of learning, alumni were invited back to the University for a dinner of mock turtle soup, Old Virginia Ham, mullet, and an assortment of ice creams. They spent the afternoon catching up and reminiscing about their time at UVA.

The Centennial: May 31–June 3, 1921

The weeklong 100-year celebration was marked with nostalgia—posters invited the community “back to the Old Rotunda”—and celebrations of Thomas Jefferson, including a pageant in the McIntire Amphitheatre in which 15 women from the Mississippi State College for Women told of Jefferson’s trials in founding the University. A fireworks show after Final Exercises capped off the festivities.

“Flashing out in fire high above the heads of 12,000 persons gathered on the Lawn of the University, there appeared last night the face and figure of Thomas Jefferson, father and founder of the institution which is his in everything but name,” wrote the Daily Progress of the event. “For a minute it burned brightly, then, as the cunningly devised powder pockets of red and blue and yellow became exhausted, flickered and went out.”

Nearly every event was filled an eagerness to protect the values of the past, as reflected in a student essay in the 1921 Corks & Curls: “We are filled with the fullness of the past, a past that has builded on a firm foundation—the lives of men. The spirit of Virginia is with us, immortal Age beside Immortal Youth. Increased numbers will not make us a greater university; let us pray rather that the coming era of expansion will develop and make finer the things that have been and must always be.”

Women in the Centennial Pageant Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

Centennial Pageant Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

LEFT:  Miss Nina Weeden Oliver
RIGHT:  Mr. Jefferson (William M. Forrest) and his granddaughter
Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

Centennial Pageant:  Greek dancers in the Amphitheatre Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

McIntire Amphitheatre during the Centennial celebration Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

The Sesquicentennial: Throughout 1969

If the 100-year celebration of the University took place within a nostalgic era, the sesquicentennial celebrations in 1969 came at a turning point for UVA.

President and Mrs. Edgar F. Shannon, Jr. greet delegates to the Sesquicentennial Convocation at a reception at Monticello. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

1969 was a year of great change for the University. Efforts were expanded to recruit a greater number of African Americans, and the first female student was accepted into the College in September. Several students rallied throughout the year to push for expanded diversity, and this charge gave a distinct tone to the sesquicentennial celebrations.

Throughout the year, the University hosted visiting scholars and arranged symposia, presentations, and celebrations to discuss UVA’s place in the world and its goals, focusing on themes such as public service, intellectual freedom and “modern man.”

Amid these events, the student body was ripe with passion and clamoring for change. In October, students held a counter-event, stating, “Many students and faculty at Virginia feel strongly that the Sesquicentennial program has failed to discuss problems and issues defining the present role of this University.” They invited discussion on UVA’s place within the military—1969 coming, of course, during the conflict in Vietnam—and in the community, and the role of academic freedom.

Obverse of medallion struck in commemoration of the 150th Anniversary of the founding of the University of Virginia. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

The University-sponsored symposia themselves presented opportunities for discussion of UVA’s stance on issues of the world and of the local community, especially regarding diversity.

In a symposium titled “The University and the Urban Crisis,” one speaker said, “When, however, students complain about injustices to others, they are responding to a higher and nobler cause and deserve even greater attention and consideration. … A state university should speak out courageously and lead, help set priorities, and stand for morality and progress, not timidity and reaction. It should ... have the vision and faith that Jefferson did.”

President Edgar F. Shannon, Jr., of the University of Virginia, with Sesquicentennial Convocation delegates Sir John Wheeler-Bennett and Colin MacKay and Convocation speaker Philip Handler. Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library

Walter Muir Whitehill, Panelist; Hardy Dillard, Moderator; Raymond Aron, Sesquicentennial Visiting Scholar; participants in the Symposium “Mass Society and the Values of the Enlightment.” Albert and Shirley Small Special Collections Library