Hawkins high school students helping revive Swift's May Day tradition

Jeff Bobo • May 4, 2016 at 1:48 PM

ROGERSVILLE — For decades, the annual May Day celebration, featuring a picnic and a variety of fun activities, was a spring tradition for students at the historic Swift College and high school.

The highlight was always the wrapping of the Maypole, which the girls performed wearing their best dresses.

It’s been more than 60 years since the all-African-American Swift College closed and more than 50 years since the main facility, which was converted into a segregated high school and closed its doors in 1964, was demolished.

But the May Day celebration remains one of the fondest memories of alumni, and about five years ago they revived the tradition with an annual May Day outing at Rogersville City Park.

On Saturday, however, the alumni hope to begin the process of passing the tradition to the younger generations.

For the first time since the celebration was revived, there has been a concerted effort to get students from Cherokee and Volunteer high schools involved.

Stella Gudger, who attended Swift after it became a high school, is now the Swift College Museum curator and helps organize alumni events.

The original May Day celebrations were held at Swift Park.

“Nobody knows when it started because there was always a May Day celebration as far back as anyone cold remember,” Gudger said. “It was an annual event started by the college, and after the college ceased to be, and the campus became a high school, of course the high school kids were more than happy to carry on the tradition.”

Gudger recalled, “We would always wrap the Maypole. That was the big thing. The girls would dress up in their prettiest dresses, and they would match the color of the ribbons on the Maypole. We would also have a fashion show, and girls who took home economics, we would actually model our outfits that we made during the year. We had a baseball game and a picnic, and it was just a full day of activities.”

Saturday’s event at Rogersville City Park will have a full slate of activities as well, although there’s no baseball game on the schedule. Gudger said she hopes to expand the program every year as more people become interested in participating.

Saturday’s event begins at 11 a.m. and features corn hole, a cake auction, bingo, live music and dancing.

A picnic lunch will be served at a cost of $7 for adults and $3.50 for children.

There will also be a drawing to award a $200 scholarship to a student from each high school.

The highlight of Saturday’s event will be the wrapping of the Maypole, and this year’s participants will be seniors from Cherokee and Volunteer. Students from Clinch were invited as well, but they already had an event scheduled, Gudger said.

Following the day’s activities, everyone is invited to the Price Public Community Center and Swift Museum at 6 p.m. for an evening of entertainment and relaxation.

The May Day celebration coincides with the Appalachian Spring Festival taking place in downtown Rogersville, and Gudger encourages visitors to the town Saturday to attend both events.

“Each high picked four girls to participate in the wrapping of the Maypole, and they’ll be wearing their prom dresses,” Gudger said. “We’re really trying to be more diversified. We want people to know about the history of Swift and our preservation efforts, and that’s why we’re inviting everyone to come out and share the May Day celebration with us.”

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