On Saturday, May 18, Mount Holyoke seniors joined scores of alumnae to march in the Laurel Parade. This long-standing tradition marks the transition from Mount Holyoke College student to alumna.
“It’s the best part of the weekend,” said Heather Creed ’79.
Amy B. Lohr ’79 agreed. “It’s very emotional and very sentimental to be here to support the graduating class!”
The tradition calls for seniors to wear white, in solidarity with the suffragists of the early 20th century, plus accessories in their class colors. This year, the class wore yellow as their symbol is the yellow sphinx.
The classes of 1949, 1969, 1979, 1994, 1999, 2009 and 2017 led the march, waving signs that wittily alluded to campus life when they were students.
A 1949 class sign read: “We came to campus with ration books!” A sign from the class of 1994 countered, “We called each other on landlines!” A sign from 2009 chimed in: “When we started, Pluto was still a planet.”
Marching four across, linked by two chains of laurel, the seniors made their way from Mary E. Woolley Hall to the grave site of founder Mary Lyon.
Along the way, students took selfies and were cheered by family, friends, Mount Holyoke College community members and alumnae.
Nyasha Franklin ’19 was somewhat stressed at the beginning of the parade, as she is in the midst of packing up her residence hall room for her post graduation teaching internship at the Buxton School. But in looking out at the hundreds of alumnae, she reconsidered.
“I’m excited,” she said. “I’m glad they’re all here. It’s beautiful to see them all here.”
The Laurel Parade tradition started over 100 years ago. In 1900, it began as the “Grove Exercises.” The president and vice president of the graduating classes each carried a single wreath of laurel, and were followed by a line of senior classmates. The wreaths were then hung on the gate posts of Mary Lyon’s grave.
By 1902, the laurel wreaths had become a chain. First-year students picked local laurel and crafted a chain for the seniors to carry. This ended in 1923, when mountain laurel had become scarce; laurel returned to the ceremony in 1925, but it came from a florist instead of being picked by hand. Seniors gathered inside the fence of Mary Lyon’s grave and wound the laurel chain around the posts while singing. Seniors stopped going inside the fence in the mid-1930s, when class sizes became too large for students to fit inside the enclosure.
In 1932, the laurel chain tradition was integrated into the annual alumnae parade, held during Commencement weekend. The laurel chain now symbolizes the unbroken linkage among all Mount Holyoke graduates and the welcoming of seniors into the fold of alumnae. Together, alumnae and seniors sing at Mary Lyon’s grave.
Since 1978, that song has been “Bread and Roses.” The song is adapted from a poem written in 1911 by James Oppenheim. The title of his poem was inspired by a speech delivered by Helen Todd — a state factory inspector turned activist — during her campaign for women’s suffrage in California. When Oppenheim first published the poem, it had the attribution line, “‘Bread for all, and Roses, too’ — a slogan of the women in the West.” The slogan was also popular with women during the 1912 textile mill strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts. In 1974, Mimi Fariña set the poem to music, and this is the version that the Mount Holyoke College community sings.
The Laurel Parade stays with alumnae through the years. Michelle Jacobson ’94 remembered when she was a student and worked at a Reunion. “The first time I saw the Laurel Parade, I cried. It’s just such a wonderful tradition.”
Michele Sumilas ’94 was back on campus for the first time since her graduation. She looked over at the graduates draping yellow scarves around their necks, knots of alumnae hoisting signs, strolling around campus, sharing photos and chatting, and declared: “It’s a sense of being home.”