A Look at Graduation Time

Every year, June brings change for thousands of students across the United States as they mark the end of a chapter in their educational life and, possibly, the start of a new one. The Prints & Photographs Division’s collections include a number of high school and college graduation photographs. Some aspects of these images seem timeless while others are distinct to their time.

The facial expressions in this image of UC Berkeley’s graduating class of 1901 seem in some cases to reflect pride and in others boredom — a combination of feelings I remember from my own college graduation.

The Graduating Class 1901, Commencement Day, University of California, Berkeley, Calif. Photo by Underwood & Underwood. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/stereo.1s10224

Music is, and has been, an integral part of the pomp at many commencement ceremonies. What would a graduation be without the school band to provide a soundtrack?

Comencement [i.e., commencement] day parade. Between 1890 and 1930. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/ppmsca.38057

Keysville, Virginia. Randolph Henry High School. School band which played for graduation. Photo by Philip Bonn, 1943. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8d31420

Students in military dress in this photograph taken by Gordon Parks at Howard University’s commencement in 1942 provide a reminder that the nation was at war.

Washington, D.C. Commencement exercises at Howard University. Photo by Gordon Parks, 1942. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8b14774

Jesse Leroy Brown, third from the left in the photograph below, became the first African American naval cadet to receive his wings at this 1948 graduation ceremony. He went on to earn a Distinguished Flying Cross, and was killed fighting for his country during the Korean War.

Jesse Leroy Brown of Hattisburg [i.e. Hattiesburg], Mississippi became the first Negro to receive his wings under the Naval Aviation Cadet Program at graduation ceremonies held at Jacksonville (NAS) Florida October 23, 1948. Photo by U.S. Navy. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/cph.3c31713

In 1941, photographer Jack Delano documented two separate high school graduation ceremonies in Union Point, Georgia, more than a decade before the Supreme Court’s unanimous Brown v. Board of Education ruling that segregation in public schools was unconstitutional.

Giving presents to the graduates at the graduation exercises. Union Point Negro high school. Union Point, Greene County, Georgia. Photo by Jack Delano, 1941. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c05637

At the outdoor graduation of the Union Point high school. Greene County, Georgia. Photo by Jack Delano, 1941. //hdl.loc.gov/loc.pnp/fsa.8c06051

The photographs in the collections provide endless opportunities to reflect on how some experiences of individual Americans have remained the same, and on what has changed over the last century.

Learn More

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