Nighty Night For The Nightshirt Parades
September 27, 1957
The end of September 1957 found some long-standing customs contested, both in the nation and atop Mt. Oread. In a single week, President Dwight Eisenhower reluctantly federalized the Arkansas National Guard in order to overcome opposition in that state to the integration of Little Rock’s public schools and Louis Armstrong announced that he would henceforth refuse to go on government-sponsored trips as a good-will ambassador because of the way the government was “treating [his] people in the South.”
As the students on Mt. Oread took in all of these events (with most apparently supporting the action of Eisenhower and the decision of Armstrong), they found themselves contemplating the future of an increasingly questionable practice of their own. While segregation did exist in Lawrence at the time, that was not the tradition on the minds of University undergrads. Rather, they pondered the future of what had been an annual event for more than half a century – the boisterous Nightshirt Parade.
The University Daily Kansan reported in September that the student body president was encouraging KU’s All Student Council (ASC) to adopt some proposed changes that would end the annual affair. He contended the Nightshirt Parades “had never been very popular” with KU students and expressed his hope that they would be replaced with “a football rally at Allen Field House … followed by a social function.”
And so in the midst of a debate over the future of the parade and on the night before a gridiron showdown between KU and Oregon State (in which the Beavers would prevail by a score of 12-0), 700 nightshirt-clad students gathered in the parking lot of Gertrude Sellards Pearson Hall. The assembly “swarmed across campus” to the “Student Union to pick up L.C. Woodruff, dean of students, Donald G. Alderson, dean of men, and Miss Emily Taylor, dean of women.” (Woodruff and Alderson both sported red and white striped pajamas while “Miss Taylor wore a matching night cap.”)
The procession then wound its way to the residence of Chancellor Franklin D. Murphy where KU’s chief administrator, dressed in a bright red nightshirt of his own, joined the crowd as it paraded to the Mississippi Street baseball field. After a rally led by the football team’s Coach Chuck Mather in the field adjacent to Memorial Stadium, 250 couples attended a dance in the Student Union Ballroom, where they were entertained by melodious tunes of The Collegiates until nearly midnight. Although no one knew for sure at the time (as the ASC would not vote to end the traditional parade until the following year), when the festivities had ended that night, KU had hosted its final Nightshirt Parade. Another University tradition had gone quietly into the night.
The precise origins of KU’s Nightshirt Parades are somewhat muddled. Reports exist of male University students gathering in nightshirts for spontaneous celebrations of Jayhawker football victories as early as the 1890s. However, the first well-documented case of KU students donning pajamas for an outdoor celebration came in April 1902 and was not held in honor of an athletic victory of any kind but rather as a festive gesture congratulating the appointment of Dr. Frank Strong as KU’s sixth chancellor. The Board of Regents had chosen Strong, a Yale PhD then serving as president of the University of Oregon, after a lengthy nationwide search.
Contemporary reports indicate that most KU students were delighted with the selection, particularly as Strong had a reputation for being “very much interested in athletic sports” and for interpreting “the caprices of youth that often incite indiscretions and pranks … in their proper sense.” When news spread that the chancellor-elect, who had been in Lawrence for final interviews, was going to cut short his visit and catch the 10:35 p.m. train back to Oregon, members of the student body decided to give him an appropriate sendoff. Shortly before 10:00 that night, 100 or so KU students “bedecked in night gowns” congregated in South Park and, followed by “mobs of others in civilian attire,” made their way to the Eldridge Hotel where Strong was staying.
After coaxing a brief speech from him, the students offered to accompany the chancellor-elect to the Union Pacific train station. Thus with thirty or forty nightshirt-clad students taking the place of horses in front of a rented carriage, the group escorted Strong across the Kansas River to the depot (the present-day Lawrence Visitor Center). There “more speech-making followed” and the “air resounded with loyal yells.” Strong thanked the students for the gesture, reminding them that he expected to see “the same kind of enthusiasm” when he returned to Mt. Oread that fall as chancellor.
The next well-documented occasion in which KU students paraded through Lawrence in their evening clothes came in the fall of 1905 and had its roots in the denoument of a violent KU tradition. On Thursday, September 21 of that year, Chancellor Strong negotiated a truce between the freshmen and sophomore classes, bringing an end to the annual “fall numeral fight,” a physical confrontation between male members of the sophomore and freshman classes that had become increasingly ferocious. (Interclass rivalries at KU and other universities were often tainted with violence at the dawn of the 20th century. Indeed the fighting served in many ways as a rite of male initiation. The best remembered example of these bouts at KU was the Maypole Scrap, but other clashes were commonplace and took little provocation to initiate. One year, such fisticuffs even erupted between the freshmen and sophomore classes during chapel.)
The first tenuous attempts to secure a peace between the two classes had come the day before. However, that evening “scouting parties of the two classes engaged in a hand to hand conflict on the rocky slopes of Adams Street.” As the freshmen lost this fight, the next day they demanded an apology which the sophomores refused to extend and “but for the diplomacy of Chancellor Strong the effort for peace” would have proven abortive.
Initially Strong, like his immediate predecessor Chancellor Francis H. Snow, had been inclined to favor the occasional interclass scrap for their potential to bolster manliness and class spirit. He changed his mind when two freshmen sustained serious injuries in the fighting of fall 1904, a result that also brought negative publicity to the University. Thus Strong persuaded the sophomores to apologize and convinced both classes to agree to bring an end to the scraps.
The following morning in his weekly Friday chapel remarks, Strong thanked the two classes for consenting to end the fighting. In possession of “the treaty of peace duly ratified and signed,” the chancellor claimed to feel “much like President Roosevelt,” who two weeks earlier had negotiated an end to the Russo-Japanese War. Strong didn’t realize, however, that he had inadvertently played a role in initiating a new tradition on Mt. Oread that would in time be marked by a different sort of violence.
For that evening, which happened to be the day before the Jayhawker gridiron squad’s first game of the season, the “sophomores and freshmen established a precedent … when two hundred of them paraded the streets of Lawrence in night-shirts, instead of holding the regular class scrap.” Members of the two classes met in Central Park, marched up Massachusetts Street together, and decided to pay the good chancellor a visit. Led by a single bass drum and “giving a Rock Chalk that could be heard all over town,” the student revelers clad in their bedclothes made their way to Strong’s residence on Louisiana Street. Shortly before midnight, they seated themselves in the Chancellor’s yard. “A few yells,” The Kansan reported, “brought the Chancellor to the door.”
Dressed “in habiliments … not different from those of his midnight callers,” Strong accepted their greetings and listened to the president of the sophomore class explain how “both classes were there in a great peace jubilee.” In remarkably fine wit for having been roused from his bed, Strong made a brief speech: “I am glad to see you clothed in the robes of peace. I hope you have established a tradition that will take the place of the annual scrap. Wishing you a ‘good-night,’ I go again to my pleasant dreams.” As fate would have it, the freshmen and sophomores had in fact established a new tradition – one that would last until 1957.
It didn’t take long, however, for KU students to forget the origin of what became an annual parade. By 1923, the University Daily Kansan cited no less an authority than James Naismith, who seemed to recall that the Nightshirt Parade had its origins in the attire of “sleepy freshmen” who turned out at bonfires held to celebrate the winning of each gridiron showdown with Nebraska during Snow’s chancellorship. The following year, the Kansan quoted Professor F.E. Melvin of KU’s history department, who claimed the tradition had begun in the fall of 1902.
Despite being off in virtually all of its particulars excepting Strong’s emergence from his house in a nightshirt, Melvin’s account was closer to what appears to have happened than was Naismith’s. According to the history professor, the yearly event had begun in a gathering of enthusiastic students in front of the chancellor’s house following a football victory. Roused from bed in his “night clothes,” Strong had emerged in his pajamas and spoken to the crowd from his balcony. “The delighted rooters in order to commemorate in the spirit of fun this act of the chancellor,” the Kansan continued in recounting Melvin’s version, “donned night shirts, and starting from the hill paraded down the streets of Lawrence.” This version became the accepted one, although by the 1930s, legend had added that Strong had joined “the parade down Massachusetts street.” The obscuring of its origins, however, did nothing to dissipate the enthusiasm stirred by the coming of the annual event.
Over the next few decades, the Nightshirt Parades became a venerable KU tradition. Typically, on the night before the first home game of the season, hundreds of students wearing nightshirts (usually over top of their clothing) would make their way north through campus to Sixth Street, then march east along Sixth until they reached Massachusetts Street. At this point, students would form “into one continuous serpentine line,” which amounted to a fair approximation of a conga line. Single file and holding the person in front of them, the students would weave their way down Massachusetts until they reached South Park where a bonfire would be held in anticipation of the next day’s game. At other times, the route was essentially reversed, with the procession beginning in the park and winding its way onto campus.
Occasionally, the parade was held after the first game of the season or even after the first victory. In 1933, for example, a number of factors combined to postpone the event until late October. Over time various features were added to the annual festival. Free food, such as cider, hotdogs, apples, and doughnuts often awaited the students at the end of the parade route, courtesy of the Lawrence Chamber of Commerce. In later years, cars carrying the chancellor and other faculty members led the parade, and a free movie show followed the bonfire. Once the annual event became a regular feature of life atop Mt. Oread, spectators – faculty members, coeds (who weren’t allowed to participate until World War II), and other curious onlookers – would line the street to watch the festivities.
Over the years, the Nightshirt Parades become increasingly (and perhaps even excessively) boisterous. In 1919, for example, an “enthusiastic crowd” of students began “jerking the trolleys” of the Lawrence trolley system by removing “the connecting rod between the trolley and the overhead wires.” This prank prompted an “enraged motorman” to drive a “street car into a group of students, injuring two” of them. (In subsequent years, the streetcar line would be shut down early to prevent “the possible ravages of the nightied klan.”)
In addition, members of campus spirit groups such as the K-Club and the KuKus didn’t hesitate to paddle paraders to when they got out of the line, either literally or figuratively. (The K-Club was composed of members of KU athletic teams and represented a fairly typical campus organization. The KuKus, however, were a different story. Initially the campus organization had borne the title Ku Ku Klan and its members had dressed themselves in garb similar to that worn by members of the Ku Klux Klan. Under duress from certain faculty members and a large contingent of students, the KuKus had reluctantly abandoned their white robes and hoods and changed the organization’s name to the KuKu Klub. Whatever ties the campus organization had to the KKK in its early years had probably dissolved by the end of the 1920s, paralleling the Klan’s own decline.)
As the years progressed, the paddlers proved eager to coerce participation in the event and so the parade became increasingly compulsory. In 1925, one hapless student was caught out on a date rather than in the parade and found himself facing “fifty capable paddles” and enduring “countless resounding whacks” before being forced to join the parade minus his hat and wearing his coat inside out. That year, another student “had to be reminded that there was a rally” and unfortunately discovered that “gauntlet does not always mean glove,” as the University Daily Kansan pointed out.
By 1938, the rigor applied by the self-appointed enforcers so disillusioned one student that he could assert, “everyone enjoys the nightshirt parade except the guys who are parading.” Perhaps inevitably, placing paddles in the hands of overzealous students took a tragic turn. In 1941, a student had to be rushed to the hospital “with injuries suffered from a paddler.” Not surprisingly the University proscribed paddling in subsequent parades.
The onset of WWII marked the beginning of the end for the traditional Nightshirt Parade. Student enrollments dropped, and the annual procession filled in the depleted ranks by including coeds for the first time. When enrollments revived in the post-war years, the student body contained many veterans attending on the GI Bill. Serious, older, and less impressionable, these students were ill inclined to participate in or otherwise put up with anything they considered collegiate foolishness. They brought an end to the freshman cap tradition at KU, and saw little reason to don pajamas for a public event. Nonetheless, a version of the Nightshirt Parade continued well into the 1950s. However, the event had lost much of its original spontaneity and student enthusiasm for it dwindled.
It was hardly surprising then that there was no outcry the following year when the ASC voted to replace the Nightshirt Parade with something called a “Traditions Convocation.” In justifying its decision, the student government claimed that the parade had become “too noisy and rough,” an ironic assertion considering the anti-paddling reforms instituted after the debacle of 1941. Even so at 7:15 p.m. on Friday, September 19, the night before KU’s gridiron squad would open the 1958 season against Texas Christian University, students new to Mt. Oread attended the first ever “Traditions Rally.”
At the gathering, Chancellor Franklin Murphy presented a lecture on the history of the University and talked at length about KU’s traditions (although it isn’t clear if he mentioned the event the gathering replaced). Whatever the merits of the new “Traditions Rally,” the energy and excitement accompanying it and the “Traditions Dance” that followed paled in comparison to that which had accompanied the annual Nightshirt Parades for most of their existence.
Thus it was that another KU tradition slipped unobtrusively into the past, leaving behind only curious photographs at which current students can glance almost uncomprehendingly before again succumbing to the tyranny of the present
Mark D. Hersey
Department of History
University of Kansas