Breaking new ground: a transition to Winston-Salem

June 5, 1950 was a very special day on the old Wake Forest College campus in Wake Forest, North Carolina.  It was commencement day but it was also the day the College Board of Trustees met and selected Wake’s tenth President.  Near the end of commencement ceremonies, Dean of the College Dr. Daniel Bryan announced that the Board had selected Dr. Harold Wayland Tribble as the new President.  Wake’s college yearbook, Howler, closed its year-end summary for 1950 with these words:

Dr. Tribble enters his new service at the crucial time in both the world and local history. One of his chief jobs during the next few years will be to complete the proposed campus move to Winston-Salem; a move that could presage a new era of Wake Forest service to the South.

October 15, 2016 marks the 65th anniversary of the groundbreaking ceremony for the Reynolda Campus at Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem.  The special guest and keynote speaker that day was President Harry S. Truman.  The special ceremony received national media coverage. Like so many important events in North Carolina’s history, Hugh Morton was there with camera in hand to document the proceedings.  On this special anniversary, Morton Collection volunteer Jack Hilliard looks back to that day in 1951.

President Harry S. Truman giving a speech at a podium at the groundbreaking of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.
President Harry S. Truman giving a speech at a podium at the groundbreaking of Wake Forest University in Winston-Salem, N.C.

North Carolina’s lead story on March 25, 1946, was that the Z. Smith Reynolds Foundation in Winston-Salem’s  had offered $350,000 a year in perpetuity to Wake Forest College, if it would move from Wake Forest, North Carolina where it had been since its founding in 1834, to a new campus in Winston-Salem. Included as part of the deal was 300 acres of land in the Reynolda area from Charles H. Babcock, a Winston-Salem investment banker.  Also in the package was a $2 million challenge grant from William N. Neal and his niece Nancy Reynolds Babcock to cover building expenses.  The Reynolds Foundation offer and the Babcock land deal would increase substantially by October, 1951.
Although Wake Forest’s medical school had made the move to Winston-Salem in 1941, (now the Bowman Gray School of Medicine,) and set up on the Hawthorne Campus about four miles from the Reynolda site, there was still some opposition to the move.  Over its long history, Wake Forest College always seemed to have the right president in place when crucial events were at hand. That was never truer than on a spring day in 1950 when university leaders selected Dr. Harold W. Tribble to head the Baptist institution.  Dr. Tribble knew how to fuel the challenge-grant drive and quell the opposition.  He was able to do both with extensive travels to address alumni groups, preach sermons, and address gatherings such as Gordon Gray’s inauguration as University of North Carolina system president on October 10, 1950.
The university set a groundbreaking date for October 15, 1951.  Dr. Tribble knew the groundbreaking ceremony had to be special, something that would send a signal that the “move is on.”  He was able to utilize special contacts that Gordon Gray had made during his time as a White House assistant, along with the influence of alumnus Gerald Johnson, a columnist for the Baltimore Sun. Dr. Tribble sent a special invitation to President Harry S. Truman to join in the groundbreaking ceremony.  On the afternoon of October 2, 1951, he received word from Matthew Connelly, one of Truman’s White House aides, that the president had accepted the invitation.
Conservative Baptists weren’t exactly thrilled with the choice of Truman because of his rough language from time to time and his pro-civil rights inclinations.  But the importance of a Truman appearance would bring national media coverage and send that clear signal that Tribble wanted: this move is going to happen.
October 15, 1951 was declared a holiday for the 1,800 students on the old Wake Forest campus.  In the early morning hours, buses were lined up and ready to transport the students to Winston-Salem for the groundbreaking ceremony.  All four of Greensboro’s radio stations were in place to broadcast Truman’s speech, plus there was also a nationwide radio hookup.  And the market’s only TV station at the time, WFMY-TV in Greensboro planned to film the proceedings for later broadcast in their news programs.  By late morning, a threat of rain had disappeared leaving a perfect day for the presidential visit and some serious ceremonial spadework.
A crowd estimated at 4,000 was waiting for the president’s arrival at Smith Reynolds Airport.  The Mineral Springs High School Band entertained the crowd with the march “Our Director” and “The Washington and Lee Swing.”  At 10:13 North Carolina Governor W. Kerr Scott arrived from Raleigh, accompanied by Hugh Morton, member of the state board of Conservation and Development, and Joseph Crawford, former warden at Central Prison.
Two four-engine-planes preceded that of the president: the first carried North Carolina’s congressional delegation while the second carried the Washington press corp.  That second group brought the total number of press members to over 200, including the David Brinkley crew from NBC-TV.  Brinkley, a North Carolina native, had recently joined NBC News in the nation’s capital. Then, at 11:29 AM the president’s plane touched down. At that moment, President Harry S. Truman became the first United States president to visit Winston-Salem since George Washington’s visit during his Southern tour of 1791.  On this day, Truman was aboard a four-engine Air Force transport; his private plane, called the “Independence,” had experienced engine problems and had been left in Washington.
University of North Carolina President Gordon Gray (center) and North Carolina Governor W. Kerr Scott (left) welcoming President Harry Truman at the Winston-Salem airport, as he arrives to attend ground-breaking ceremonies at the new Winston-Salem, N.C. campus of Wake Forest University.
University of North Carolina President Gordon Gray (center) and North Carolina Governor W. Kerr Scott (left) welcoming President Harry Truman at the Winston-Salem airport, as he arrives to attend ground-breaking ceremonies at the new Winston-Salem, N.C. campus of Wake Forest University.

At the foot of the landing platform, Governor Scott, Tribble, Gray, and Winston-Salem Mayor Marshall C. Kurfees greeted Truman, who was accompanied by his aides from each of the military services.  Scott, Tribble, and Truman then made their way across the tarmac where special limousines were waiting.  Crowds lined both sides of the six-mile route to the home of Mr. and Mrs. Charles H. Babcock, where the president was honored with a special luncheon.  Winston-Salem Police Chief James I. Waller led the motorcade followed by a car of secret service officers.  Along the route, several in the crowd waved small United States flags, and a few others waved the old Confederate flag. In its December 3, 1951 issue Life published a Hugh Morton photograph of a person holding a Confederate flag behind his back as Truman’s automobile passed by. (Our next post will look at that subject in more detail.)  About 240 North Carolina State Highway Patrolmen, assisted by Greensboro and Winston-Salem police officers patrolled the route. The presidential motorcade arrived at Reynolda at noon.
Hugh Morton's photograph cropped as it appears in LIFE, 3 December, 1951, page 107.
Hugh Morton’s photograph cropped as it appears in LIFE, 3 December, 1951, page 107.

At 1:55 PM, the motorcade reformed and headed to the future home of Wake Forest College where a crowd of about 20,000 was already in place. The ceremony began at 2 PM with an invocation by Dr. Ralph W. Herring, Pastor of the First Baptist Church in Winston-Salem. Dr. Herring was followed by the formal presentation of the land on which the new college would be located, by Mr. and Mrs. Charles H. Babcock.  Dr. Casper Warren, Chairman of the North Carolina Baptist State Convention’s fund-raising committee, then presented a one-million-dollar gift for construction of the first campus building, which was to be a chapel.  Accepting both gifts was Judge Hubert E. Olive, President of the Wake Forest College Board of Trustees.  Gordon Gray then delivered greetings from the educational institutions of North Carolina.
Detail from the image below of Harry S. Truman speaking at the podium.

At approximately 2:30, Tribble introduced the nation’s chief executive.  Truman, a fellow Baptist, then delivered what had been billed as a major policy address.  The president  began with a tribute to the 117-year-history of Wake Forest College.

It is a privilege to join my fellow Baptists in rejoicing at the enlargement and rebuilding of one of our great institutions.  It is a privilege to join the people of North Carolina in celebrating their devotion to freedom of the mind and spirit. . . Wake Forest College has given 117 years of distinguished service to education and religion in this state.  Over the years, the college has sent thousands of graduates out through the land to positions of leadership and trust.

Truman then talked about the tense international situation, saying that many Americans oppose the present costly defense efforts, which he insisted were essential for peace.  He  made an offer to work out a plan of atomic weapons control with Russia adding, “I cannot guarantee that we will reach our goal. The result does not depend entirely on our own efforts. The rulers of the Kremlin can plunge the world into carnage if they desire to do so. . . . The only way they’ll respect and live up to any agreement is because they know someone is strong enough to carry it out.”  This statement brought many in the crowd to their feet.  Truman closed with this: “Armed with faith and hope that made this college and this country great, you may declare in the words of King David, ‘through God we shall do valiantly.'”
Following the Presidential address, a dedicatory prayer was given by Dr. George D. Heaton, pastor of Myers Park Baptist Church of Charlotte.  Then it was groundbreaking time. The President was handed a decorated shovel and then yelled to the assembled photographers, “All y’all ready?” He then turned the first shovel full of dirt, followed by Judge Olive, then O. M. Mull, chairman of the college building committee.  President Tribble then turned that final shovel full, thus making it official: the construction of the Reynolda Campus of Wake Forest College in Winston-Salem was underway.
The President headed back to the airport for his return to the Nation’s Capital.  He would be home by 4:47 PM.  It would be almost five years before the completion of the first fourteen buildings, in time for the first students who arrived on the Winston-Salem campus in the fall of 1956.
Dr. Harold W. Tribble led Wake Forest College until his retirement on June 6, 1967.  In his seventeen-year term as president of the school, assets increased from about $10.5 million to more than $91 million and the number of students grew from 1,800 to 3.000.
When Dr. Tribble took office in May of 1950 he had two dreams for the school.  One of those dreams was fulfilled in the fall of 1956 when the first students arrived on the Winston-Salem campus. The second was to see Wake Forest College achieve University status, which it achieved on June 18, 1967—twelve days before Dr. Tribble retired.

2 thoughts on “Breaking new ground: a transition to Winston-Salem”

  1. I was present at the ground breaking by President Truman. I was standing just in front of the President with my parents and brother when he turned the first shovel full of dirt over. We heard President Truman say “It’s been a long time since I have shoveled dirt.” My Father attended Wake Forest College in the late 1920’s well before the move to Winston-Salem. This is one experience we will treasure forever.

  2. I have a family photo taken that day at the airport. My Dad, Mom,Sister and Me..
    I was 2 -1/2 years old at the time. My sister told me We were waiting for the arrival of President Truman. Through the wonder of the internet I researched Pres. Truman visit to Winston-Salem and confirmed the date.

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