While celebrations of May Day occurred sporadically on campus in the nineteenth century, May Day exercises and the selection of the May Queen became an annual event in 1921, just a few years before Trinity College became Duke University. Early celebrations included the traditional dancing around the May Pole and, in some years, pageants that featured plays, music, and folk dancing. The May Queen and her court, dressed in gowns and carrying often lavish bouquets, would be presented to the campus community in an elaborate ceremony.
Before the founding of the Woman’s College, the Women’s Student Government Association and the Young Women’s Christian Association would plan and sponsor the “May
Day Revels.” In 1930 the Woman’s College took over the planning of the event, which was generally held on East Campus.
Among those selected as May Queen were the late Nancy Hanks ’49, a former Duke trustee and director of the National Endowment for the Arts; U.S. Senator Elizabeth Hanford Dole ’58, Hon. ’00, of North Carolina; and Wilhelmina Reuben-Cooke ’67, a Duke trustee emerita and a member of the first class of African Americans to graduate from the university.
As the academic calendar and campus changed, so did the May
Day festival. The selection of the May Queen was moved to earlier in the semester and tied to Joe College weekend, a spring celebration that began in 1950 (see Retrospective, Duke Magazine, March-April 2005). Campus turmoil and the push for equal rights for women helped end the May Queen tradition in the late 1960s.