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It is fitting that one of our four Baptist Presidents, Harry Truman, who liked to play the piano and dance, broke the ground for the new Wake Forest College campus in Winston-Salem. It was a celebratory occasion, attended by thousands. But few knew that behind the scenes, there was significant opposition to the move.

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A lot of people hate any kind of change. And among fundamentalist Baptists, there was a fear that the move from the tiny town of Wake Forest, where everyone knew everyone else’s business, to the bustling industrial city of Winston-Salem would result in a level of anonymity that would lead to a moral breakdown at the college. As construction of the campus proceeded in the mid 1950s, a group that called itself the Committee of 17 launched an investigation into the moral climate of the Twin City and the new campus.

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Harold Tribble was given a hero’s welcome after a failed attempt to modernize the Wake Forest College board of trustees in 1963

Caught in the crossfire was an unlikely man, Dr. Harold Tribble, a devout Baptist with a few modern ideas, who had just ascended to the presidency of the college. At one point, in 1957, a group of conservatives began a mail campaign to oust Tribble. That campaign failed.

When the campus opened in 1956, most of the old rules were still in effect. The brunt of those fell upon women students. On Sundays, all women students were required to wear dresses or skirts all day…no slacks, and certainly no shorts. Every day women students were forbidden to smoke in public on the campus. They could smoke only in their dormitories, while male students could smoke pretty much where they pleased, including classrooms. But it was the devil’s special work, dancing, that brought the first public conflict with the State Baptist convention.

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Dancing had been forbidden by the state convention on all NC Baptist college campuses since 1937. So the first year, Wake Forest students had to go off campus to jitterbug and shag. The Varsity Grill, nearby on Polo Road, was a popular destination. Other new clubs would soon follow. There was a beautiful log cabin in the woods off Ransom Road. The owner would rent the building to fraternities for parties, while she and her daughters spent the night away in a motel. Some of us high school students managed to infiltrate the proceedings, where we first encountered such cultural wonders as “purple Jesus”.

But there was a determined group of students who wanted to be able to dance without taking to the highways. They petitioned the college’s board of trustees to change the rules. And on April 26, 1957, the trustees agreed to do so, provided that such dancing was chaperoned. Of course, that set off a fire storm of protest from conservatives, to the point that the college trustees rescinded their decision in October of the same year. In response, the meeting of the state Baptist convention the following month produced a record attendance, with the central issue being dancing on Baptist campuses.

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Legendary reporter and editor Dick Creed was the first to report the dance ban vote, in the Twin City Sentinel

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On November 19, the convention, in a thunderous voice vote, reaffirmed the dancing ban. That night, students rushed the quad, chanting “We wanta dance.” They rolled the trees, lit a bonfire, changed the name at the entrance to the campus to “Wake Forest Monastery”, burned the outgoing president of the NC convention in effigy and danced to the latest rock ’n’ roll hits: Chuck Berry’s “School Days”, Buddy Knox’s “Party Doll”, The Everly Brothers’ “Bye Bye Love”,  and of course, Jerry Lee Lewis’s manic “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On”.

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Dr. J.C. Canipe, who led the charge to reaffirm the dancing ban, was burned in effigy

The next day, the students were summoned to Wait Chapel to officially receive the news. But overnight, they had been busy. Most women students wore red “Ds” pinned to their blouses, reminiscent of the “A” in Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter. When the announcement was made, an alarm clock went off and all but a handful of students got up and walked out, singing “Dear Old Wake Forest”. They went to the student center, dragged the jukebox outside onto the plaza and began dancing. That night, more students went to the new Thruway Shopping Center, where they were joined by young women from Salem College for more defiant dancing.

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All of this was covered by the national press, including major newspapers, Dave Garroway’s “Today Show” and Life Magazine. One coed, Linda Kinlaw, a three-time beauty contest winner, told a Life reporter that it was “…more fun than a panty raid.” Another said “We ought to dance with these old men (convention delegates) and see if they get all shook up!”

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Linda Kinlaw: “It was more fun than a panty raid.”

But under enormous pressure, the administration soon shut down the protests. In 1958, the Committee of 17 announced that they had discovered serious moral issues on the new campus and proposed that an old rule requiring all students to attend mandatory chapel programs at least twice a week be reinstated. The following year, they sought to mandate state convention approval of any change in the college bylaws. Both efforts failed, but there would be many more battles.

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Wake Forest students, joined by some Salem College women, took their protest to Thruway Shopping Center. Note the “D” on the coed near the center.

In 1963, in Wilmington, Tribble led an effort to change the bylaws to allow non-Baptists, even non-North Carolinians, to be appointed to the Wake Forest board of trustees. That effort failed by only 194 votes out of 2,700. Caravans of students met Tribble on the highway as he returned from Wilmington, and thousands of cheering people greeted him on campus, but the struggle to become a modern educational institution would continue. Meanwhile, there was still no dancing on campus.

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Dancing to Bob Collins and the Fabulous Five, Reynolda Hall, 1967

That would not come until 1967, when Dr. Tribble retired and was replaced by James Ralph Scales. Scales knew that Wake Forest would wither and die unless he could bring the school into the 20th century. One of his first moves was to remove the ban on dancing on campus. That was done quietly and without consulting the state convention. At homecoming that year, Bob Collins and the Fabulous Five became the first band to play for a dance on the Wake Forest campus.

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