The Inauguration of Frank Porter Graham, 1931

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Daily Tar Heel, 11 November 1931

Today in Chapel Hill, Margaret Spellings will be formally installed as the eighth president of the University of North Carolina System. As a proud UNC student and for my first blog post as a graduate assistant in the University Archives, I decided to look back at the inauguration ceremony of the first UNC System president, Frank Porter Graham.

Graham’s appointment as President of the UNC System followed just a year after he was inaugurated as President of UNC-Chapel Hill. There does not appear to have been a separate ceremony when he became system president, but his inauguration as UNC-Chapel Hill President was an elaborate event.

President Graham was officially sworn into office November 11, 1931.  It was no casual affair, either; according to the Daily Tar Heel, five thousand people came out to witness the ceremony.  The ceremony itself was planned to coincide with Armistice Day and the annual meeting of the Association of American Universities. 

Footage of Frank Porter Graham’s inauguration procession. From the North Carolina Collection.

The ceremony began with a procession from Bingham Hall to Kenan Stadium. As bells chimed from South Building, ten different divisions of marchers assembled at Bingham Hall, including student body representatives, the class of 1909 (Graham’s own graduating class), North Carolina state officials, and representatives from other universities across the United States. A trumpet signaled the beginning of the procession. As everyone took their place in Kenan Stadium, two minutes of silence were observed to honor the World War I armistice and the thirteen years of peace since then. North Carolina Governor O. Max Gardner opened the ceremony, and due to the absence of North Carolina Supreme Court Chief Justice W. P. Stacy, the Honorable W. J. Adams administered the oath of office. The whole ceremony was specially amplified so everyone in the large stadium would be able to hear the proceedings.   

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Caption reads: “W.J. Adams, associate justice of the North Carolina supreme court, in the left of this photograph, is administering a formal oath inducting Frank Porter Graham into the presidency of the University, yesterday morning. Immediately behind the president is Governor O. Max Gardner. Other dignitaries concerned with the occasion appear in the background.” From the Daily Tar Heel, 12 November 1931

After the official swearing-in ceremony, the day continued with more events – a luncheon, official meet-and-greets with various university representatives, and musical performances by the music department and the glee club.  Since the 33rd annual meeting of the American University Association began the day following Graham’s inauguration, a large number of university officials were present for the ceremony and following events.  These officials included deans and presidents from Harvard, Columbia, Northwestern, and more.

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Caption reads: “Pictured above are five distinguished men in the educational world who will be among the sixty-seven delegates attending the thirty-third annual meeting of the Association of American Universities which opens at the University of North Carolina Thursday, November 12. They also represented their institutions at the inauguration of President Frank Graham. Top row, left to right: Dean Howard Lee McBain of Columbia university, President Walter Dill Scott of Northwestern university, and Dean W. Whatley Pierson of the University of North Carolina, who is chairman of the committee on arrangements. Bottom row: Dean George H. Chase of Harvard university, and Dean H. Lamar Crosby of the University of Pennsylvania.” Daily Tar Heel, 12 November 1931


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Daily Tar Heel, 11 November 1931

The Daily Tar Heel‘s dedicated inauguration issue didn’t skimp on descriptions of the event and praise for Graham and the future of the University, and so I end this post with a couple of my favorites quotes — ones that seemed to sum up the student body’s and the larger academic world’s opinion of the event and President Graham himself.

“Frank Porter Graham, who more than any other by his peculiar qualities of absolute impartialness, sincere support of the Ideal, unusual humanity, and indefatigable energy on behalf of the University and the state personifies that which education in its usefulness and inspirational service to the community and the commonwealth strives to accomplish.”


“Long now has education been satisfied to rest in conservatism restrained by tradition, when it should be the intellectual beacon guiding men onward into unknown but knowable. Too long have universities been sepulchers for the imprisoned culture of past ages. The time is at hand to loose Wisdom and Culture from their dungeons that they may serve mankind.  The presidency of Frank Porter Graham by its enlightenment can be the single greatest factor in lifting North Carolina from the intellectual rear guard of the forty-eight states to that position of preeminence which its long and illustrious history deserves.”

Daily Tar Heel, 11 November 1931

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