What Does Labor Day Mean to Berea?
To most Americans, Labor Day falls on the first Monday in September and is merely a federal holiday, providing an opportunity to relax and take a day off work. However, to the students of Berea College, Labor Day takes on a completely different meaning. For one thing, Berea celebrates Labor Day in late May. To Berea College, Labor Day is a day established to give recognition and honor to Berea Student participation in the college labor program.
How it All Began
Berea first began celebrating student labor on May 21, 1921. It took place in the Phelps Stokes Chapel and awards were distributed to students who had successfully fulfilled their labor positions. Labor Day was officially inaugurated on May 31, 1923, when labor contests were initiated to add flavor to the celebration. “The morning of Thursday, May 31, dawned bright and glorious after the rain of the proceeding evening.” Described a woman named Miss Helen Beatty, “It proved a true omen for the Labor Contest and Award giving held that day […] This was a unique occasion as nothing like it had ever been in Berea.”
Not only was it a unique occasion for Berea, it was an event unprecedented in all the United States of America. Never before had an academic institution devoted an entire day to celebrate its student labor. Dr. A.G. Wiedler, who was said to be the only full-time Dean of Labor in America during that time period, was the prime motivating force behind Labor Day. He felt it was crucial to impress upon the students, particularly new freshman students, the true vision of the Berea labor program. He was of the opinion that it was just as important to honor student labor in Berea, as it was to honor athletics through field day, and academic work through commencement. He was the originator of the idea for Labor Day Contests, launching the celebration into new heights in 1923.
Labor Day Contests
The Labor Day Contests were a unique and unusual practice in the academic world. Instead competing in athletics, debate, and spelling like other educational institutions, Berea had students contending against each other in activities such as milking cows, baking, and weaving in front of a set of judges and crowd of spectators. They participated in contests ranging from tasks as simple as washing dishes to as complicated as carving wooden bears. Acknowledging student labor in this way demonstrated Berea’s ideology that superior ability to peel potatoes or shear sheep is just as praiseworthy and as the superior ability to throw a football or run a mile.
The contests varied from year to year. One year there was a cake decorating contest, and in another seven boys from the woodwork department assembled a refrigerator within a mere seventeen minutes. Outdoor event contests such as milking cows, transplanting plants, and hitching mules to a wagon were held outside on the athletic fields. Other events such as painting, broom making, typing, and sewing were held inside the chapel or the Seabury Gynasium.
Each contestant in these Labor Day festivities was selected through competition to represent various labor departments. To be a contestant was considered an honor. The largest number of students to ever compete in the Labor Day contests was 311 in 1950. The winner of each contest received a prize of $5. Those in second place won $3, and those in third received $1. These contests not only promoted a sense of friendly competition and fun, they also gave an opportunity for students to demonstrate the unique opportunity the Berea Labor program provides to those outside of the Berea College community. A spectator of the Labor Day contests in the year 1927 said, “The contest are as exciting as a horse race and a three ring circus combined. And at the same time they are a significant course in the value and dignity of labor.”
Annual Parades and Ceremonies
To add to the color and excitement of the Labor Day festivities, the college introduced a new custom in 1926. On this Labor Day, a parade of Berea students marched down Main Street to the Phelps Stokes Chapel where the Labor Day speech and awards ceremony took place. In this colorful procession students marched in their respective labor departments, designated by banners. Many departments dressed up for the occasion. Bakers wore white outfits and carried rolling pins, gardeners wore overalls and carried hoes, broom makers wore aprons and brown paper caps, and clothing makers wore pink flowered sunbonnets and aprons. Some departments brought some of their works to display as they marched in the parade such as baskets, quilts, and shawls. The farm department even brought animals they had cared for during the winter. On one occasion the music department fastened a tiny organ upon a child’s express wagon and a young man squeezed into that little wagon, and played the organ with cramped legs while being drawn by a team of young women.
Berea selected a variety of speakers from year to year to speak to the Berea student body on Labor Day. Past Labor Day speakers included two governors of Kentucky, a governor from Ohio, two members of the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), and Sir Philip Ben Greet, a famous Shakespearean actor. The Labor Day award ceremonies presented two different kinds of awards. The first was simply to award every student who had completed two or more consecutive years in the service of their labor department. The second award was called the Danforth Creative Prize, made possible by Berea trustee William H. Danforth , awarding students for creative work and inventions within their labor departments. Some examples of first place winners for the Danforth prize include: a corn cutter, a skirt, a new seal to advertise the Centennial, and a roller cleaning device.
Labor Day Changes
In the early 1970’s Labor Day at Berea began to change. The traditional procession of students continued only instead of dressing in their work clothes they were encouraged to “dress neatly.” Instead of holding contests in the afternoon as they had in previous years the college took on a different approach. They opened up games and field events for everyone who wanted to participate rather than creating contests where only selected contestants were allowed to participate. Such activities included sack races, tug o’ war, the skittle game (made by the students in the woodworking department), log sawing, and bobbing for apples. One game that looked particularly interesting was called the “Greased Pig Game,” which involved greasing up a pig, setting it free into a field, and the person able to catch it first was named the winner. Open tours of the student industries as well as craft fairs and demonstrations were also available for public use. In the evenings delicious banquets were provided with outdoor entertainment, awards and a street dance.
Although the traditional Labor Day contests had been discontinued, the spirit of competition took a different form. Each year a new Labor Day theme such as “Divided We Meet, Together we Achieve” or “Service: Love through Labor” was presented, and students were encouraged to let their creative juices flow by entering contests to design brochures and banners according to the theme. There were also essay and photography contests offered. A number of different awards were also established including the Russel Todd Award (for the most constructive use of leisurely time), Berea Student Employee of the Year Award, Volunteer Service Award, and the Outstanding Labor Supervisor Award.
Berea continues to recognize Labor Day each year to this day. It is considered to be along with commencement one of the biggest events of the year. It is a completely original and unique occasion celebrating Berea’s rare, distinctive labor program that has come to be recognized internationally. Louis Smith, former Dean of Berea College recalled once sitting in the reading room of the International Peoples College in Elsinore, Denmark. He was astonished to discover a small picture of one of Berea’s Labor Day programs at Phelps Stokes displayed on the wall. The Labor Day celebration is largely responsible for capturing the attention of other college institutions on a national, and eventually international level.
With Their Hands
We could not live without them, those toilers bold,
Who hold the world together with their hands.
Who, through the summer’s heat or winter’s cold,
In crowded cities or on spacious lands,
Still spin and weave and stoke and build,
And delve in mines, and plow and sow and reap,
Till bountifully earth’s granaries are filled,
And men in happiness and comfort keep.
Without these hands no homes make men rejoice,
No sound of engine or rich organ’s chimes,
No judgments on the bench, no pulpit voice,
No humble poet cons his simple rhymes
For God and man the workman has a care,
For in his handiwork he make his prayer.
Ada Simpson Sherwood
Citizen Sept. 2, 1943.