Wednesday, January 15, 2020

52 Ancestors - LONG LINE: The Normal Line

Violetta Davis 1923
Violetta Davis outside her dorm 1923
Casual Photo for the yearbook

The year was 1923. My grand-aunt Violetta Davis (later Ryan) was graduating from the Harrisonburg Normal School (now James Madison University – Go Dukes!). The traditions surrounding commencement had been in place for over ten years. Five days of activities were planned. The entire student body stayed to share in the excitement of their friends’ achievements and to dream of the day when it would be their turn to join the “Normal Line.”

What a cast!

On Friday, June 1, 1923, the Senior class presented “The Lamp and the Bell” in the outdoor theater. It was a poetic drama by Edna St. Vincent Milay based on the fairy tale “Snow White and Rose Red.” Milay wrote it specifically as an outdoor production with a large cast, colorful medieval period costumes and a great deal of spectacle.

On Saturday night, June 2, the Seniors were entertained with music by the music students and dramatic readings by students in the expression class. 

Normal Line 1923 leaving Spotswood Hall
The Normal Line
Walking from Spotswood Hall to the gates at South Main Street
Sunday was Baccalaureate in the morning and Vesper Service in the evening. For many years Baccalaureate rotated among the various churches in Harrisonburg. As long as the service was downtown, the people of Harrisonburg showed up to watch the procession of faculty in academic gowns and seniors in their white dresses as they walked in a line from campus to the church. It came to be known as “the Normal Line.” The Normal Line stretched for blocks. It must have been an impressive sight.

Normal Line processing down South Main St 1923
The Normal Line on South Main Street Harrisonburg, VA
You can see people in the yard watching the parade. 
Since the students were on display, the faculty and administration required a uniform look. The girls wore white dresses with white stockings, white shoes, and white hats. Sleeves had to be at least half way to the elbow and the hem had to be fourteen inches from the floor. The rules were nothing to mess with. Graduates had to pass inspection conducted by a committee of students and chaperone of each dorm. For Violetta, inspection day in Spotswood Hall was April 30, 1923. 

The Vesper Services were held Sunday evening in the amphitheater, concluding with a candlelight service in which the graduating class relinquished their seniority to the Juniors. The ceremony was usually accompanied by a great deal of sadness and tears.

On Monday was the annual tennis tournament between the two clubs on campus, the Racquet and Pinquet clubs. Homecoming for the alumnae was always during commencement week, and in 1923 the Alumnae held their banquet on Monday evening, June 4.
JMU 1923
Gates at South Main Street
Spotswood Hall on the left
Harrison Hall second from the right
On Tuesday evening, June 5, 1923, Commencement was held in the Blue Stone Dining Hall in Harrison. Finally, Violetta and the other Seniors had triumphed in their studies. They crossed the finish line.


Amy Johnson Crow continues to challenge genealogy bloggers and non-bloggers alike to think about our ancestors and share a story or photo about them. The challenge is “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks.

© 2020, Wendy Mathias. All rights reserved.


  1. Very good use of the 52 Ancestors prompt. I like that you end your post with the link to the challenge. Hope you don't mind if I start doing that too.

  2. Wow, that was a celebration for graduation! But after 4 years of working hard, it was worth it to be able to have these festivities to participate in! I would like to have seen that normal line; it would indeed be impressive!


  3. The description of the white dresses and accessories the girls wore is unbelievable. Can you imagine doing that today? :-)