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How Rituals and Traditions Are Used as Tools of Socialization at Black Women's Colleges

Authors:
Alicia C. Collins & Bradford F. Lewis 47
How Rituals and Traditions
Are Used as Tools of Socialization
at Black Women’s Colleges
Alicia C. Collins
Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York
& Bradford F. Lewis
Morgan State University
Journal of Thought, Fall-Winter 2008
Introduction
In many cultures there are ritualistic practices that are interwoven
into the fabric of the culture as a means to socialize individuals who
participate within that culture. This is also true in higher education.
Rituals are an essential part of the culture of higher education. Insti-
tutions use such rituals as a way to bring new members into a culture
and introduce and inuence them with artifacts and symbols that are
all socializing agents used in the socialization process. Rituals provide
meaning and relevance to institutions while at the same time connect-
ing with the past.
“The purpose of education for all women in patriarchal America, as
determined by most analyses, has been socialization” (Coleman-Burns,
1989, p. 145). The purpose of this study is to examine how historically
black women’s colleges (HBWCs) in the United States use various types
of rituals and traditions as tools of socialization. Currently, there are
two historically Black women’s colleges in the United States, namely,
Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, and Spelman College
in Atlanta, Georgia. This study observed and attempted to understand
how rituals and traditions inuence the socialization process at these
two HBWCs through a case study analysis.
The traditions that take place at both Bennett and Spelman College
help to shed light into the culture of both institutions. These traditions
are initiated by individuals in the environment such as faculty, admin-
Rituals and Traditions as Tools of Socialization
48
istration, alumnae, and students to bring new students into the campus
community. Traditions are interwoven into the collegiate experience for
students from the moment they step onto the campus. They are greeted
by campus artifacts and symbols. Traditions allow for interaction with
the members of the community that seek to inuence them and it is the
vehicle by which history of the past connects with the future.
In order for socialization to be successful, participants of the culture
of these two colleges must inuence those seeking entrance into this com-
munity, both knowingly and unknowingly. In the case of both Bennett
and Spelman College, faculty, administrators, students (peer groups),
and alumnae work together as socializing agents that are purveyors of
the organizational culture. In order for these institutions to get the re-
sults that they desire, it is important for participants in the community
to accept the relevance and signicance of the cultural perspectives of
the community.
What makes Bennett College and Spelman College so unique in
their development of Black women is that they take the time to develop
these young women, both personally and professionally. These institu-
tions focus on the particular needs of their students, and they offer a
nurturing environment, a critical mass of role models and mentors, and
structures which involve rituals and traditions that help students in
their transitions from student to alumnae.
Summary of Literature
In studying the processes of socialization of Black women at HBWCs,
it is important to realize that there are varying processes involved in
socialization. Brim (1968) notes:
In each instance of socialization a key element is the role prescription
or expectation that someone else has for the person in question, which
involves a change in, or addition to, that person’s beliefs, attitudes, or
behavior, or motives or values, with reference to some social situation.
(Brim in Clausen, 1968, p. 186)
Weidman (1989) outlines a conceptual framework for understanding
the undergraduate socialization process. In analyzing undergraduate
socialization, Weidman divides the socialization processes of undergradu-
ates into three categories. These categories are interpersonal interaction,
intrapersonal process and integration (social and academic). Interper-
sonal interaction focuses on the frequency of interaction between active
participants in the environment, in which the student is seeking accep-
tance. The intrapersonal process refers to the student’s self-perceptions
of their collegiate experience. Social integration “refers to the extent to
Alicia C. Collins & Bradford F. Lewis 49
which an individual’s behavior in groups is characterized by willing ac-
ceptance of group norms and solitary relationships with other member”
(Weidman, 1989, p. 294). The second type of integration, according to
Weidman, relates to faculty student interactions and is referred to as
academic integration.
Manning (2000) discusses rituals of incorporation and rituals of enter-
ing and exiting. Rituals of incorporation focus on bringing new members
into the culture and welcoming them after they have gone through a series
of activities or rites of passage. Rituals of entering and exiting is “the act
of crossing a threshold, whether in marriage, entering a new house, or
embarking on a new stage of life, has traditionally been endowed with
considerable meaning””(Manning, 2000, p. 7). This particular ritual focuses
on the fact that some colleges have special symbols or artifacts that are
dedicated to the exiting and entrance of students (e.g., Bearden Gates of
Bennett College and the Alumnae Arch of Spelman).
Methodology
This study is a qualitative case study investigation. The case study
draws its evidence from individual interviews, document analyses, and
observation. After receiving permission to use the campuses as sites
for this study, a one-week visit was set up at both colleges. Semi-struc-
tured interviews were done with faculty, administrator, alumnae, and
students. During these visits, time was also spent reviewing the college
archives, taking campus tours, and directly observing campus activities
(e.g., classes and convocation). Telephone interviews were conducted
with alumnae of both Bennett College and Spelman College in an effort
to understand their collegiate experience. Alumnae were interviewed
from all across the United States and range six decades from the class
of 1948 to the class of 2000.
The case study draws its evidence from individual interviews (alum-
nae, faculty, administrators, and students), document analyses, and
observation. Site visits to each campus allowed for direct observation
of campus activities and relationships among students, faculty, and
administrators in their natural setting. The visits allowed for the review
of historical archival documents that cannot be viewed anywhere else.
Audiotapes from tape-recorded interviews were transcribed in
preparation for interpretation and analysis. Documents collected from
the institutions, transcripts from interviews and research, and obser-
vations recorded in research journals were reviewed to nd themes,
words, and ideas that recur. The data collected was analyzed and coded
by researcher into different categories in order for themes to be noted.
Rituals and Traditions as Tools of Socialization
50
Case Study Participants
Bennett College is a small liberal arts college located in the city of
Greensboro, North Carolina. The Bennett campus is built in a quadrangle
shape and is surrounded by four walls. The ceremonial Bearden Gate is at
the entrance to the campus and is opened only twice a year. The Bearden
Gate is in perfect alignment with the doors of the Annie Merner Pfeiffer
Chapel where all ceremonies and convocations take place. The campus
has walkways that line the campus and the lawn known as the “Unbroken
Green” because people are not allowed to walk on it, is decorated with
magnolia trees that are in perfect alignment with each other.
Spelman College is located in one of the largest cities in the United
States, namely, Atlanta, Georgia, and it has a student body of approxi-
mately 2,000. Spelman College is located in a section of the city referred
to as the Atlanta University Center (AUC). In addition to Spelman, the
AUC is comprised of Clark University-Atlanta, the Interdenominational
Theological Center, Morris BrownCollege, and Morehouse College (an all
men’s college). Spelman’s motto “Our Whole School for Christ” reects
the deep religious faith and beliefs of its founders Sophia Packard and
Harriet Giles.
Both colleges will be cited interchangeably to illustrate comparisons
and similarities among the development of sisterhood and socialization
processes of African-American women.
The Value of Sisterhood
Through the case study analysis, the socialization process and inte-
gration is explained conceptually through the value of sisterhood. The
value of sisterhood and community is prevalent on both the campuses,
but each institution has different activities which facilitate the socializa-
tion process of sisterhood. The term sisterhood is used as a metaphor
for family and community on both campuses. Students are not biologi-
cally sisters, but they are sisters in terms of a common experience, a
common goal, and the faculty and administrators represent surrogate
parents who want them to succeed. On both campuses there are rituals
of incorporation and rituals of entering and exiting, which are designed
to welcome newcomers into the campus community, and also used as a
method of transition from one role in the community to another. Each
of these rituals will be discussed for each college.
At Bennett College, the bonding of sisterhood begins each academic
year, and each rst year student is given a big sister, who is a member of
the junior class. This begins the bonding experience between the fresh-
man and junior class. This relationship continues until the big sister
Alicia C. Collins & Bradford F. Lewis 51
is a senior and graduates, and then the little sister will become a big
sister the following year. These sisterhood relationships are intended
to be a way of bringing the community together while at the same time
allowing for upperclassmen to mentor lower classmen. The big sister
is responsible for helping her little sister with her academics if she is
having problems, showing her the campus, and helping her to become
acclimated as a student. The end of this sister bonding involves a cer-
emony where the little sister adorns her big sister with an academic
robe on Senior Day.
Spelman College hosts a ceremony for the induction of its female
students into the bonding of sisterhood. This ceremony follows a number
of different activities that take place during orientation week, at the be-
ginning of a semester, and is a highlight of the week when new students
are welcomed ofcially into the Spelman sisterhood. This ceremony is
a ritual of incorporation which is designed to welcome newcomers into
the campus community, and it is also used as a method of transition
from one role in the community to another.
The word sister is used as a term of endearment for fellow students,
alumnae, faculty, and administrators of Spelman. “That’s my Spelman
Sister.” This phrase was repeated often in interviews with students,
alumnae, faculty, and administrators of Spelman College. This endear-
ing term reects the close-knit community of the college. “My Spelman
Sister” is a way for members of the community to identify other members
and it is used as a form of campus language.
The Hooding Ceremony
The value of sisterhood is an overwhelming theme in the socialization
of Black women at Bennett. At the beginning of each academic year, they
are given a big sister, and this sister bonding begins between the rst
year student and junior class. This relationship continues until the big
sister is a senior and graduates, and then the little sister will become
a big sister the following year.
The big sister and little sister relationships continue until the senior
year of the big sister and the hooding ceremony, which is a closure to
this bonding. During the hooding ceremony the little sister adorns here
big sister with her rst academic hood. An administrator said, “This is
the last outward bonding gesture between these students, and students
have tears running down their faces as they realize this is the last time
they will have such a common experience together.”
Senior Day
Senior day is held every spring on Thursday, usually in the month
Rituals and Traditions as Tools of Socialization
52
of March. This is the rst time that graduating seniors have an oppor-
tunity to put on their academic regalia. This ceremony is taken very
seriously on the campus and seniors and sophomores are given a half day
of classes. At four o’clock the entire campus community comes together
in Annie Merner Pfeiffer Chapel to watch the robing of the seniors by
their little sisters, which is the sophomore class.
The seniors and the sophomores march in a processional from the
campus gym wearing white dresses, esh-tones stockings, and black
shoes. They march through the Bearden Gate and around the campus
into the chapel. The faculty, administrators and staff are robed in their
academic regalia and they follow this processional into the chapel.
One graduate of the class of 1996 recalls:
Senior day is when seniors get their robes and then there is a program
that is held at four o’clock. The whole campus comes together on Senior
Day. Seniors march from the gym wearing their robes from the gym,
across through the Bearden Gates, and the sophomores and the seniors
are on each side. The faculty and staff are robed in their academic attire
and they are in the processional. After the program there is a special
dinner that the sophomore’s class organized for the seniors.
During this ceremony graduating seniors are hooded with their
academic hood by their little sisters. After this ceremony seniors are
required to wear their academic regalia to convocations as a symbol of
their accomplishments and the beginning of their transition from student
to graduate.
The Tradition of Sisterhood
The value of sisterhood is a continuous theme from the moment new
students walk on the campus of Spelman, and are told about Spelman
sisterhood. The rst week of orientation activities are developed for new
students to help them understand the rich history of Spelman College
and what is expected of them as Spelman students. One of the activities
requires that new students be paired with one younger alumna and one
older alumna. The alumnae talk to the students about the history and
tradition of the college. First year students have to approach upperclass-
men, faculty, and administrators and request permission to ask ques-
tions about Spelman. If they get the answer right, they get a signature.
New students have to get approximately one hundred signatures. If the
student sings the Spelman Hymn, the student gets three signatures.
This process is all a part of getting students to understand the history
of Spelman, and the expectations that faculty, administrators, and staff
have of students.
Alicia C. Collins & Bradford F. Lewis 53
Induction into the Sisterhood
During orientation week upperclassmen bang at the doors of all new
students and wake them up in the early hours of the morning. Students
are supposed to be unaware of this ritual, and if they do know about
it, they don’t know when it will occur and when they will be awakened
during the night. Alumnae note, “They come banging on the door telling
you to get up and they wake you up and they wake you up out of your
sleep.” An administrator/alumna says:
We wake them up in the middle of the night and take them to the Cha-
pel, and require them to sing the Spelman hymn. It makes them angry
when they rst do it, but they love it because the next day it’s always
powerful. Here it is 3 or 4 o’clock in the morning, and we’re sitting in
Sister’s Chapel. We’ve got hair rollers on and all that. Everybody says
their name out in Sister’s Chapel no matter how many freshwomen
there are, so everyone gets to hear their names echo in the Chapel. And
then they sing the Spelman Hymn maybe ten times, which helps them
learn the hymn. I think it gives them a sense they’ve been through
something almost like pledging, or whatever that emotion brings out.
Later that evening at seven o’clock an induction ceremony takes place
on campus at which the young women are required to wear the Spelman
uniform which is a white dress, esh-toned stockings, and black shoes.
This ceremony is a candlelight service in which new students are then
inducted into the sisterhood.
Rituals of Entering and Exiting
Both Bennett College and Spelman College have dedicated rituals
of entering and exiting socialization processes and traditions that help
students in their transitions from student to alumnae. This particular
ritual focuses on the fact that some colleges have special symbols or
artifacts that are dedicated to the exiting and entrance of students (e.g.,
Bearden Gates of Bennett and the Alumnae Arch of Spelman).
Introduction to the Bennett Community
The ritual of introducing all new students to the Bennett community
is called “Convocatum Est.” This is a formal ceremony to introduce the
new members of the campus community, and it is a transition from
outsider to actually becoming a member of the Bennett family. This
ceremony requires all new students to dress in white dresses esh-
toned stockings, and black shoes. The young women organize at the
Colleges Gym, and they line up for a processional that will go from the
gym through the Bearden Gate across the campus and into the Annie
Merner Pfeiffer Chapel.
Rituals and Traditions as Tools of Socialization
54
During this ceremony, new students are introduced to the entire
campus community by having their names and hometown spoken aloud
in the Chapel. As names are being called, students check their names and
hometowns in the register. The calling of a person’s name is a declaration
of their arrival, and for all of those around them to take notice of this
particular person’s entry. This call is a declaration of the new students’
arrival at Bennett. This is where the students are ofcially introduced
to the college community, and this is an opportunity for everyone to see
the new faces. An alumna discusses this experience and remembers:
Everybody is looking at you to see who these new students are. Any-
one who has matriculated at Bennett is in that book… And people are
watching and they are watching while you’re up there signing the book
and they are looking to see what you’re wearing and asking did she put
on a slip? How did she come down those stairs? And the upperclassmen
are really watching you and the professors are watching you, too.
The Bearden Gate
The Bearden Gate is the ceremonial gate and is named after a for-
mer dorm matron at Bennett, Catherine Kennedy Bearden. The gate is
opened only two times a year, when rst year students are introduced
to the Bennett community and Senior Day. The Bearden Gate “…rep-
resents many hopes and dreams for the students and welcomes them
to the new life, to the community of educated men and women on the
high occasion of graduation” (Brown, 1998, p. 11).
The Parting Ceremony at Spelman
The Parting Ceremony takes place during student orientation, and
it is a way of bringing new members into the campus community. The
ritual involves rst year students going through a ceremony in which
they are separated from their parents and given to the president of
Spelman. A graduate of 1999 recalls this ceremony:
The President says to our parents “thank you for giving your daughter
to me.” Then there is a drum roll and you walk under an arch with your
parents. As you come from under the arch your parents are instructed
to go to the left, and we went to the right. When you go to the right,
the President gives us a hug and takes us from our parents. But when
you graduate you go under the Ivy arch and you are reunited with
your parents.
The Alumnae Arch
The Alumnae arch is located within the campus oval, and it’s made
out of ivy. The arch is symbolic of graduating seniors leaving Spelman,
Alicia C. Collins & Bradford F. Lewis 55
and moving into the role of alumnae. Most students are told at orienta-
tion that it is bad luck for students to walk underneath the arch before
it is time for them to do so. After a special graduate service is held in
Sister’s Chapel, the graduating seniors along with alumnae go out to the
oval for this ceremony. Alumnae who are present go through the arch
rst starting with oldest alumnae present going through rst until they
get to the senior class. The graduating senior goes through the arch and
is greeted by the President and their family as they exit the college and
enter into “greater service.”
Class Day
Class Day is when the senior class comes together before gradua-
tion to reect on their experiences and time spent at Spelman. During
this ceremony the class valedictorian gives a speech known as the “ivy
oration.” After the ceremony the class valedictorian plants ivy beside
one of the campus buildings.
Comparative Findings
In examining the socialization of Black women in education one will
note that the process was deliberate and systematic. The early social-
ization of Black girls at these colleges focused on moral development,
spirituality, behavior, appearance, and intellectual development. The
White women missionaries sought to control every aspect of the Black
women’s education. To understand socialization theory, one must real-
ize that processes of socialization are implemented through some type
of social control. Claussen (1968) notes, “…As an underlying basis for
social control, socialization efforts are designed to lead the new member
to adhere to the norms of the larger society or of the particular group
into which he is being incorporated and to commit him to its future” (p.
6). In the past, women’s colleges were referred to as “grooming schools.”
But to what extent are these schools still doing the same thing now?
These institutions continue to educate black women, but they are still
grooming them to be successful members of society.
In this study, the various rituals that take place on both campuses
were described. There are rituals of incorporation that are designed to
welcome newcomers into the campus community. Examples of this would
be at Bennett College’s “Convocatum Est” and Spelman College’s “Induc-
tion into the Sisterhood” ceremonies. Rituals, ceremonies, symbols, and
artifacts help to bring relevance to the culture’s existence and purpose. In
order for students to have a willing acceptance of groups’ norms, the use
of rituals becomes an important aspect of the process of socialization.
Rituals and Traditions as Tools of Socialization
56
In order for socialization to be successful, participants of these two
college cultures must inuence those seeking entrance into the com-
munity, both knowingly and unknowingly. In the case of Bennett and
Spelman, faculty, administrators, students (peer groups), and alumnae
work together as socializing agents that are purveyors of the organizational
culture. In order for these institutions to get the results that they desire,
it is important for participants in the community to accept the relevance
and signicance of the cultural perspectives of the community.
This study is important because it shows insight into the environ-
ment that has focused specically on the needs of Black women. As time
has gone, by the mission statement, faces of faculty and administrators,
and internal and eternal factors have changed, but the use of traditions,
rituals, and ceremonies as symbols of the campus community connects
the present day college with its past.
A major concern for these institutions in the future is that students
do not always understand the relevance of rituals and traditions. One
Spelman alumnae noted “tradition is only good when everyone enjoys
doing it and they understand its relevance.” This is valued at Bennett
and Spelman where a lot of emphasis is placed on tradition and rituals
so that the relevance of these activities can be understood and the new
generation of students can be convinced to buy into their value system.
Note
Individuals who wish to correspond regarding this article should contact
Alicia C. Collins at the following address: Director of College Now and Collab-
orative Programs, Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York,
1150 Carroll Street, Room 302, Brooklyn, NY 11225. Phone: (718) 270-6412;
Fax: (718) 270-6435.
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Education as a tool of socialization at Agnes Scott Institute and Spelman Seminary, 1881-1910. (Doctoral dissertation
  • J C Brazell
Brazell, J. C. (1991). Education as a tool of socialization at Agnes Scott Institute and Spelman Seminary, 1881-1910. (Doctoral dissertation, The University of Michigan).
The long walk: The story of the Presidency of Willa B. Player at Bennett College
  • L B Brown
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Manning, K. (1993). Properties of Institutional Culture. In G. D. Kuh (Ed.), Cultural perspectives in student affairs work (pp. 21-36). Washington, DC: American College Personnel Association.
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