The first graduation at Bridgewater College occurred on June 18, 1886. The graduates consisted of three students who received a Bachelor’s of English. They were Kittie Danner, William K. Franklin, and Daniel B. Garber. Degrees were conferred in the chapel of the Virginia Normal School Building. The importance of graduations began to grow, and the first “Commencement Week” happened in May 1888. It opened with a baccalaureate sermon by Samuel F. Sanger. In 1889, graduation began to look more like a conventional commencement, including speeches by faculty and the graduates themselves. Commencement Week quickly became a tradition at Bridgewater College. President Paul H. Bowman, who was known for his dedication to this tradition, preached all the baccalaureate services during his presidency from 1919-1946, barring three in which he was unable to participate.
Bridgewater College’s nature of inclusivity can be seen through the history of graduations. Bridgewater College was the first co-educational college in Virginia. Kittie Danner, the first woman to graduate from Bridgewater College, was also a member of the first graduating class. In defiance of the culture of segregation in the 1950’s, Bridgewater College first enrolled Black students in 1953 and 1954. Bridgewater College's first African American graduate was Karen C. Weaver; she graduated on August 11, 1956, with a B.A. degree.
Graduations at Bridgewater College were substantially changed by outside powers in some instances. In 1889, the main building of Bridgewater College burned. It was replaced by Stanley Hall, which became the venue for graduations from 1891 to 1912. The year of 2020 also caused a drastic shift for Bridgewater College's graduation ceremony. In response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Bridgewater College held a Virtual Commencement on May 2, 2020.
By Decklan Wilkerson and Nathan Bademian, Special Collections Interns, Summer 2021