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Volume 45, No. 2
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Controversy / The Alma Mater
A Time to Sing

By Mark Kendall

“Hail, Pomona, Hail” will remain Pomona College’s alma mater, but—at least for the present—students won’t be singing it at the key ceremonial events of the school year. President David Oxtoby announced his compromise decision in December after months of debate over whether the song is tainted because it is believed to have been written for a blackface minstrel show held nearly a century ago.

In a letter to alumni, many of whom spoke for keeping the alma mater, Oxtoby said his move “is based upon a conviction that traditions— like people—should be judged on their merits, not on the basis of historical associations unconnected to their actual character. All are agreed that there is no harmful meaning in either the words or the music of ‘Hail, Pomona, Hail.’”

At the same time, Oxtoby said that “given the divisive nature of the controversy over the song on our campus” it will not be sung at Commencement or Convocation for the present. “In these special, student-focused settings, unity and a sense of mutual respect are paramount,” he wrote, also noting that “one cannot impose a tradition, and efforts to do so generally fail.”

Oxtoby’s decision set aside the proposal of the Committee on College Songs he had appointed to advise him on the matter. The committee had voted 9 to 1 to call upon the College to replace the alma mater with a new one, while also recommending unanimously that “Hail, Pomona, Hail” continue to be sung at alumni events.

“While all of us happily and proudly sang “Hail, Pomona, Hail” before knowing of its origins, many now find it hard to think of the song without associating it with pictures of students in blackface,” the committee wrote in its report. “With this association, the song no longer reminds many of the best of the College, but instead a portion of its history that is less exemplary and therefore fails in its basic function of serving as a unifying element for the Pomona community.”

The announcement from Oxtoby capped months of emotional debate over the song’s fate. The issue came to light in February 2008 after fliers were posted around campus noting the song’s purported origins. According to his own accounts, Richard Loucks, who entered with the class of 1913 but didn’t graduate, wrote the song as the finale to a blackface minstrel show held on campus in 1910 as a fund-raiser for the baseball team. This piece of history was not a secret, but it was certainly not widely known, especially among current students, until the fliers went up.

After meeting with a group of concerned students, Oxtoby, with the support of the Board of Trustees, last year suspended performances of the song by student groups and appointed a committee comprising alumni, faculty, students and staff to consider “Hail, Pomona, Hail” and other college songs.

Reaction from alumni was swift and strong: Concerned that the suspension would lead to a ban, hundreds spoke out in favor of keeping the song, with some going so far as the suggest they would no longer give money to the College if the alma mater got the ax.

“Just as I had feared, political correctness is threatening to despoil a cherished memory and a wonderful college tradition,” wrote Merv Nerling ’51 in a letter. “For many of us, over 50 years removed from graduation, while memories grow muted, the melodies linger on as we replay the old songs. Please don’t remove or modify this key song.”

Student opinion was in the other direction. The Associated Students voted unanimously to urge the College to decertify the alma mater, and The Student Life also came out against the song in an editorial: “To keep ‘Hail, Pomona, Hail’ as our alma mater would undermine the supposed ideals of the institution, because it would ignore the strong objections of a part of the community. People don’t have to like the alma mater, but it is essential that nobody feels threatened by it.”

The matter even reached The New York Times after a Claremont McKenna alumna ran the issue past ethics columnist Randy Cohen, who urged Sagehens to “sing out—full-throated, clear-conscienced,” while also lauding the school for cultivating “in its students an alertness to the historical origins and cultural implications of things around them.”

A twist came in the form of research by Rosemary Choate ’63, which raised doubts as to whether the song really was performed at and written for the minstrel show. (See accompanying story below.)

Since making his decision, Oxtoby reports receiving hundreds of e-mails from alumni, with the largest bloc supporting the compromise, followed by others who thought the whole business was a waste of time. In the former camp was Julianne Flora-Tostado ’76 who wrote: “The reasons behind your compromise make sense to me. I’m glad that the song will still be sung during Alumni Weekends.”

But Kim Bruce ’70, the computer science professor who cochaired the songs committee, said he was disappointed because the move, in practical terms, leaves the college without an alma mater. He had wanted the College to choose a new song. “To have an alma mater that is no longer sung by the students, means we don’t have an alma mater, and I find that sad,” said Bruce.

President Oxtoby said that, in some ways, the alma mater has been slowly lost over the years as it has been sung less often by students, who he says “these days are simply not that interested in learning songs and that type of tradition,” noting that there was no groundswell of students fighting to keep singing the song at Commencement and Convocation.

“It’s not really a very aesthetic song for someone in my generation,” said Cyrus Winston ’10, a student who was charged with researching the history of the song with the help of two professors.

Winston would like to see the College dig deeper into its history. And that’s an area where both Oxtoby and the committee agreed, calling for Pomona to provide better resources for exploring its past. Said Winston: “If these things were talked about more it wouldn’t be so big of a controversy.”

Retouching "Torchbearers"
On the matter of “Torchbearers,” a Pomona song with roots in the late 1800s, President Oxtoby went with the recommendation of the plurality of the committee that wanted to revamp potentially offensive lyrics. Wrote Oxtoby: “This is appropriate because portions of the song make reference to Native American traditions in ways that are, at best, stereotypical and, at worst, offensive. It is worthy of note that these words have already been rewritten once, in 1930, so this is consistent with our past practice. I will consult with the Music faculty to explore how the rewriting may be done in a professional fashion.”

Omission, Memory, Mystery
The alma mater controversy started off as a debate over whether— and how much—the circumstances of the song’s birth matter today. But along the way the song’s origin came into question, adding a new and confusing twist to the discussion.

It had been understood that the alma mater was written by Richard Loucks ’13 as the finale for a blackface minstrel show put on as a fundraiser for the baseball team in 1910. The evidence showing Loucks wrote “Hail, Pomona, Hail” for the January 1910 show comes from an undated letter from Loucks (quoted in the liner notes of a 1954 college songs album), note cards he wrote for a 1958 Glee Club talk and interviews with and articles by Loucks in subsequent years.

“It’s more likely to be true than false,” said Cyrus Winston ’10, a student who was charged with studying the song’s past as a summer research project. “I’m pretty certain that the song was written for a blackface show.”

But alumna Rosemary Choate researched the matter as well, and she contends that Loucks got his facts mixed up decades later. She draws on a different set of documents, noting that the 1910 Student Life article about the minstrel show makes no mention of “Hail, Pomona, Hail” and lists “The Blue and White” as the show’s finale. Also, “Hail” didn’t make it into the college handbook until 1911-1912, while it could have gone into the earlier 1910-1911 handbook. And the song was given a featured place in the 1912 Pomona College Song Book. With this timeline, she concludes that “Hail” was written at a later time than the show and that Loucks’ memory failed him many years after.

“Sole reliance on human memory, without substantiating or supporting evidence, often leads to error …, ” writes Choate. “The acknowledged ‘truth’ that Pomona’s alma mater had its beginnings in a minstrel show nearly 100 years ago is simply incorrect.”

The Committee on College Songs took a different view, voting unanimously that “it was more likely than not” that “Hail, Pomona, Hail” was written for the 1910 minstrel show. In an analysis of the research, committee co-chair Kim Bruce turned the argument around, citing the apparent lack of objections from Loucks’s classmates, many of whom would have still been living when his accounts of the alma mater’s origins appeared in the 1950s.

“In spite of the many documents we have sought on the history of the alma mater, we have uncovered no documentary evidence earlier than 1954 indicating that it originated in a blackface minstrel show,’’ writes Bruce. “The question is whether or not we trust Loucks’s own account of the history of the song he composed— a history that was never questioned until September of this year.”

President David Oxtoby, meanwhile, took a stance somewhere between those of Choate and the committee. In announcing his decision to keep the alma mater, Oxtoby noted that the evidence for a connection between the minstrel show and “Hail, Pomona, Hail” is “contradictory and open to interpretation.”

©Copyright 2008
by Pomona College
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