Friday, June 21, 2024

Bossier History: May Day, A Celebration of Spring and Health

by BPT Staff
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Spring has “sprung” here in Bossier Parish. The azaleas and other blossoms, and all the bright greenery to go with the purples and pinks, are looking lovely, and it’s comfortably warm and breezy. This transformation is worth celebrating. With the holiday of May Day, people have done so from ancient to more recent times, across the globe and here in Bossier Parish.  

Pam Carlisle

May Day began from ancient, pagan Scandinavian and Celtic traditions celebrating the arrival of spring, and both derived from ancient Roman practices. Villagers would go “a-Maying,” picking flowers and secretly leaving them in tiny baskets on neighbors’ doors, crown a Queen of May and dance around a flower and ribbon-bedecked maypole. When these traditions arrived in the New World, Puritans forbade them as relics of paganism. But the holiday persisted in the U.S. Here in Bossier Parish, the celebration of a traditional May Day, has all but disappeared, but there are plenty of folks above at least the age of 50 who can give fondly-remembered firsthand accounts of the celebration.

For local educators, fame could be built on the elegant execution of these performances and festivities, a time for administrators, teachers and children to show off their talents to the community, and for girls to wear some extraordinary dresses, hair ribbons and crowns at school. At Bellevue Academy, near the old parish seat, the Bossier Banner reported in 1867, “Our school teacher, Mrs. Shropshire, supervises the preparation for the occasion. The female portion of her school, together with several of the young ladies of our vicinity, will constitute the Queen and Court…The experience of our teacher in such matters, and her indefatigable energy in preparing the girls and young ladies for the occasion guarantees success. After the ceremonies, a big dinner will be given.”

In 1872, the Banner reported the May Day festivities held at the Fillmore Academy. Tongue in cheek, the reporter said the principal teacher, Mr. Griswold, traded his role of “dictator” for “Master of Ceremonies,” beginning with a speech that was “largely ignored.” Then school girls sang with piano accompaniment, there was the crowing of the May Queen, more songs sung by the girls, then a dinner. “Nobly did the matrons of the neighborhood do their duty that would have been relished by Delmonico himself.” (That was likely a reference to Delmonico’s in New York, the first fine dining restaurant in the U.S.)  The meal had pork, ham and Irish potatoes, and strawberries and confections “for the ladies.” The festivities were capped off with a dance to tunes played by a fiddler who played for three hours in the afternoon, then five hours at night, even to jig time. The dance lasted all the way till dawn.

According to a Bossier Banner-Progress paean in 1900 to Bossier educator Professor Joesph E. Johnston, who founded the Pioneer Academy, which became Plain Dealing H.S., and earlier taught at Rocky Mount Academy, the 1887 May Day performance in Rocky Mount under his direction was “an occasion worthy to be recorded in the history of the parish.” A contemporary account of the event in the Bossier Banner-Progress stated, “The May-pole dance was beautiful, and sent one’s fancy flying back through several centuries to Merry Old England. The was crowd was the largest ever assembled at Rocky Mount.”

These celebrations, of course, described the social life of the white elite of the parish. These community celebrations were organized at private schools; a public education system was only just beginning. In the twentieth century, May Day was celebrated within a broader swath of Bossier’s population, among both African-American and white children in public schools, often in connection with social reform movements, such as public health. 

Bossier City High School’s May Day (when the school encompassed all grades, from elementary through high school) was enough of a spectacle that a photograph and description of the pageant could be seen on a regular basis in the 1920’s-1930’s in the Shreveport Times. It was such a special occasion that the dedication of its significant, new brick annex building in 1927 and the May Day pageant were combined. Under the direction of Mrs. C.H. McKennon, that year’s “May day fete, the fourth annual event, had four hundred students from elementary through high school grades, performing.” It included a poppy dance, a dance of Violets and Butterflies, a dance of French dolls, a Norwegian Mountain march, an “Indian dance,” a wreath dance, and a parade of tin soldiers. There was the crowning of a queen (Maude Lawson, senior) and a wrapping of the maypole. Between 1,500-2,000 persons attended. 

The newspapers of the time, like the schools, were segregated, so mentions of the May Day celebrations in African-American schools were harder to find. In the History Center’s oral history collection, Betsy Bryant Trammell, who attended school in in the 1920’s in her church, Fellowship Baptist, before the Butler school was built for African-American children in Bossier City, remembered they “wrapped a Maypole” (dancing around it with the colored streamers) as one of their special school programs. In fact, wrapping a Maypole was top-of-her-mind when she was asked about what the young students did for fun. 

Here at the History Center, we’re always looking for photos or any other mementos from gatherings and special days like May Day (and ordinary days, too) in Bossier Parish.  If you can’t bear to part with treasured originals, we’d love to have the chance to scan your photos and paper documents. We can add the copies to our collection.  The History Center is located at 2206 Beckett St, Bossier City, LA. We are open: M-Th 9-8, Fri 9-6, and Sat 9-5. Our phone number is (318) 746-7717 and our email is [email protected]
For other fun facts, photos, and videos, be sure to follow us @BPLHistoryCenter on FB, @bplhistorycenter on TikTok, and check out our blog http://bpl-hc.blogspot.com/.

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