The campus of UNCG – known then as State Normal & Industrial College – saw lots of service and sacrifice during World War I on the part of its students. It also saw one of the biggest events ever on the central part of the campus: a war bond rally featuring Charlie Chaplin.
American armed forces had entered the war in April 1917. At the one year mark in 1918, a new issue of Liberty Loan Bonds was being released to finance the war. Chaplin, perhaps the biggest celebrity in the world, was doing his part to drum up sales and support.
That year, he would create a short propaganda film on the Liberty bonds – as well as a great silent comedy about the life of American soldiers in the trenches, “Shoulder Arms,” according to David Robinson’s “Chaplin: His Life and Art.”
His publicity tour for the Liberty Loan bonds began in Washington, DC (see visual).
According to Robinson, the tour began just after he finished his classic film “A Dog’s Life.” Douglas Fairbanks, Mary Pickford and Chaplin began the tour together, in Washington, DC, and then New York City. (See related Lens blog post at New York Times.) After that appearance, Chaplin broke away to begin his Southern tour in Petersburg, Va., said Robinson.
By April 12, he was speaking in Rocky Mount and Wilson, then on to Raleigh, where he made two addresses, one in the afternoon and one in the evening, according to the April 13 Greensboro Daily News. The latter event was in downtown Raleigh’s Municipal Auditorium.
Griffith’s “The Birth of a Nation” and a Tom Mix western were among the several “movies” playing in Greensboro that Saturday, April 13. The cold, wet weather of the day before – which had caused our campus’ Field Day to be moved indoors – had passed, allowing for the big Carolina vs. Virginia baseball game at Cone Park to go on as planned. But first, there’d be a very large parade.
The entire city of Greensboro was “dressed in the national colors,” according to the April 13 Greensboro Daily Record, with large crowds lining the route. It adds that Chaplin was “apparently as tickled as a school boy at the demonstration, and especially at the pretty college girls in the parade.” The Daily News noted that 500-600 State Normal students were in the parade, as well as Greensboro College for Women students.
A diary in the Greensboro Historical Museum, written by Mary Smith, describes the occasion: a “magnificent outpouring of the people, full of patriotic enthusiasm.” She notes the Red Cross nurses in the parade, as well as its long line of automobiles. “Main St. was ablaze with flags,” she says. Describing the scene at the State Normal (UNCG), she speaks of the “waving flags” and of “Charlie Chaplin being the chief attraction among the speakers.”
More than 5,000 people gathered at the college to hear Chaplin speak, said the Greensboro Daily Record.
On the grounds of UNCG (State Normal College), a small stand was waiting. A member of the State Normal faculty, Wade Brown, would direct a choir from the campus and the Greensboro College campus in leading all assembled in patriotic songs, according to the April 13 Daily News.
The Daily News says the stand was erected in “Curry court” on the campus. The old Curry Building, located where the northern part of Stone Building and the northern part of its front lawn lie today, was used from 1902 to 1926, according to “Bricks and People,” a walking guide of UNCG. What the term “Curry court” denoted is unclear today, but Curry Building was adjacent to the playing fields, also known as the hockey field, where Petty Building stands today. (The Daily News notes the parade entered the campus at College Avenue and then “north to Curry court across the college campus.”)
A May 1918 State Normal Magazine says the “Normal Regiment,” which marched four abreast, joined the parade which marched to the “Normal Hockey Field.” This leads to the conclusion that the crowd gathered generally where Petty Building and possibly part of the Stone Building lawn are now located. (Elisabeth Ann Bowles, in her book “A Good Beginning,” cited the State Normal Magazine and indicated the location was the hockey field, “now the site of the Petty Science Building.” Photographs in UNCG University Archives & Special Collections show the steep, grassy inclines near Petty – they are still there today – used as spectator seating during events on the playing field.)
The magazine says that Charles Lapworth, former editor of the London Daily News, gave a patriotic speech. He then introduced “‘little man Charlie’, who in spite of his inborn humor and fun, tried hard to be serious and to ‘get down to brass tacks’ in impressing all present of the needs for a big response to this call.”
The Daily Record says Chaplin “begged his hearers to buy liberty bonds, and then to buy more bonds.” He asked who would buy these bonds. “The hands went up from one end of the vast concourse of people to the other, and among those so expressing themselves were women as well as men.”
The reaction from the crowd, according to the magazine? “Everybody present was thrilled over his American patriotism.”
In next Campus Weekly: how the students of Normal College (UNCG) sacrificed and served in the larger war effort.
By Mike Harris
Photograph in National Archives: Charlie Chaplin speaking on Liberty Loan bonds in Washington, D.C. on April 6, 1918 – one week before he spoke at UNCG. (Editor’s note: A date typo in the preceding sentence was corrected.)
Earlier story in this series: Charlie Chaplin roused the crowds at UNCG