College Songs - Hail Pomona, Hail!

The history of Pomona’s alma mater, “Hail Pomona, Hail!,” is linked to blackface minstrelsy, a popular form of entertainment in America in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Minstrelsy dates from the 1820s, when white performers (and blacks as well by the end of the century) donned makeup and portrayed racist stereotypes of black people. Among the first such performers, Thomas “Daddy” Rice (1808–60), popularized the early form of the genre as a solo act, playing various fictitious characters, the most famous of which was Jim Crow.[1]

Blackface minstrel shows were aimed at white audiences, and were expressly designed to demean blacks with extreme, negative parodies of speech, gesture, demeanor, and behavior. Throughout the Antebellum and Reconstruction eras, minstrel troupes frequently toured the United States and Europe. Although these professional troupes began to disappear by the end of the century, amateur minstrel shows continued to be performed well into the twentieth century. College campuses were a popular venue for these shows—Harvard, Yale, Amherst, Brown, Columbia, Occidental, Pomona, and many others; the list is long—and for other costumed presentations, many of which involved depictions of various minority groups. At Pomona, these practices can be traced back to the College’s early history, and there are examples of class plays, pageants, and other campus entertainments that depicted Native American, Mexican, Chinese, and Japanese people and culture. There is photographic evidence of minstrelsy at the College from at least 1907,[2] and The Student Life includes mentions of it from as early as 1910.

From what we can reconstruct from the College’s records, the particular show in question, which took place on January 15, 1910 as a benefit to raise money for new uniforms for the baseball team, was not out of the ordinary. Initially, the musical numbers for it did not include “Hail Pomona, Hail!,” but the day before the show, the organizers realized they did not have a suitable finale, so Richard Loucks, a student at the time, hammered out the song that afternoon, and it closed the show the next day.[3] During the next year and a half, it was sung regularly at College events. When it came time to choose an official alma mater (in 1911), the College selected “Hail Pomona, Hail!”

The history of Pomona’s alma mater has been published in numerous sources over the years, including in four Pomona College Magazine articles published since 2000 (2001, 2002, 2008, 2009) and in various College songbooks.[4] Unfortunately, its origin, like most of the College’s history, was not widely-known to current students until 2008 when an anonymous person or group put flyers around campus during Family Weekend to raise awareness of its problematic connection to the 1910 show. This resulted in a call from many in the Pomona community for it to be retired as the College’s alma mater. For many alumni, however, “Hail Pomona, Hail!” is a point of pride that reminds them of their time at the College, and that has a long-running and deep tradition with the College that they believe should be cherished and preserved.

To resolve these concerns, then-President David Oxtoby commissioned a ten-member ad hoc committee of students, faculty, alumni, and trustees to look at the question of “Hail Pomona, Hail!” and (eventually) “Torchbearers,” which also has a controversial history. After soliciting reactions from the Pomona community through forums, town hall-style meetings, conversations, and written correspondence (letters and email), the Pomona College Songs Committee concluded that nothing about the text or music of “Hail Pomona, Hail!” itself was necessarily problematic, but “with this association [to a blackface minstrel show], 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 as a unifying element for the Pomona community.”[5] As it was no longer the right symbol to represent Pomona College in the 21st century as its official alma mater, the committee recommended to President Oxtoby that the song be decommissioned, but the Glee Club and various a cappella groups could continue to sing the song with the proper discretion. Ultimately, President Oxtoby decided that the song would remain the alma mater, but he retired it from public performance. As such, the Glee Club has not sung it since the 2007 Reunion Weekend and tour, which preceded the initial suspension of performances of the song.

Hail Pomona, Hail!
We, thy sons and daughters, sing
Praises of thy name,
Praises of thy fame,
Till the heav’ns above shall ring:
To the name of Pomona,
Alma Mater, hail to thee;
To the spirit true of the White and Blue,
All hail Pomona, hail!

[1] For further information, see Lewis, B. (2003).“Minstrel show.” In The Oxford Encyclopedia of Theatre and Performance, Oxford University Press. Retrieved 24 Nov. 2019; Hartnoll, P., & Found, P. (1996). Rice, T(homas) D(artmouth). In The Concise Oxford Companion to the Theatre, Oxford University Press. Retrieved 24 Nov. 2019; Winans, Robert B. “Rice, Daddy.Grove Music Online. (2001). Accessed 24 Nov. 2019; and “Who Was Jim Crow?” Jim Crow Museum of Racist Memorabilia website. Accessed November 2019. [back]

[2] Date from [back]

[3] The Student Life, January 21, 1910. [back]

[4] Pomona College Song Book (1914), The Songs We Sing at Pomona College (1943), The Songs We Sing at Pomona College, 2nd edition (1968). There are also copies of various talks about the college songs’ history given by Professor William F. Russell in the 1970s and 80s preserved in the Music Department’s archives. [back]

[5] Mark Kendall, “A Time to Sing,” Pomona College Magazine 45:2 (Winter 2009), p. 6; quote by President Oxtoby. [back]