May-Day Memories in Rock Hill, South Carolina

Years ago, when I was teaching at the College of William and Mary, students in my class who were members of a fraternity asked me to decorate for their May-Day Celebration. They often invited me to be a chaperone for their dances (probably because I was the youngest faculty member). I was delighted. It was fun. Besides, May-poles were, after all, one of my many memories of growing up in Rock Hill, South Carolina.

One of my brightest students, Geoffrey P. Serra from Rhode Island, helped me construct a May-pole, and I remember adorning it with azaleas. We twisted crepe paper for hours to make the streamers, and we had such fun. I taught a May-Pole dance, one I adapted from a Scottish country dance when I danced at a St. Andrew’s Society in Washington, D.C.

Many years later, or “fast forward,” as the expression goes, I was invited to interpret at the Historic White Home. More specifically, I was asked to teach a May-Pole dance, and tell stories. And I did. Besides teaching, God has blessed me with the ability to tell stories, sing, and dance, and I am grateful. The executive director at that time, as I look back on it, believed that perhaps because Hattie Isabella Lindsay White, wife of Andrew White, son of Ann Hutchison White, gave parties in the wing of the old home, she surely taught the May-Pole Dance.

That was logical. “Miss Hattie” probably did teach a May-Pole Dance. Perhaps she didn’t. Who knows, for sure? She must have taught some dances. J  It doesn’t really matter that every activity be documented. And I wrote that in my 1995 Teacakes and Trolley Rides, an oral history of Rock Hill. For that book, I interviewed over 100 citizens of “The Rock,” as my children called it. I am a native of Rock Hill. My father was the late Dr. Roderick Macdonald, and my mother was Sara Benn Macdonald, musician.

I remember writing that some individuals may have kept diaries or journals, written letters or notes, jotted something on a calendar, or perhaps related a detail to a friend who passed it on. For example, if I had not been invited to review one of my novels at a book club hosted by Julia Rebecca Nickles White, the beautiful, generous wife of William C. White, I would never have seen how the White Home looked before it changed after it was sold to Historic Rock Hill.  If I had not visited her several times at what was then known as Spring Arbor, I would not have known about her life in Charleston and her days at Rock Hill’s First Presbyterian Church. She was such a gracious lady. If I had not visited Andrew Hutchison White after church at the Episcopal Church of Our Savior where he and I were members, and taken him his copies, sometimes sodden, of The Herald, I would not have known about his own elaborate dinner parties, his crippling fall, the old cook, and much, much more.

But I did, and I am glad. Andy shared his stories, for he was named for “Miss Hattie’s” late husband. She had come from Yorkville, South Carolina, to teach music at Ann Hutchison White’s Pine Grove Academy, sometimes called the Rock Hill Academy (there’s a little ambiguity there). Upon seeing her, Andrew, second son of George Pendleton White and Ann (Annie) Hutchison White, fell in love with “Miss Hattie.”  He proposed. We can only imagine his mother’s disappointment. Why? Not so much that they married, but because she lost a teacher (an intentional fragment). In those days, a married woman could not teach. “How absurd,” we say. And it was a ridiculous rule. But it was a rule.

But with her love of music, Hattie Isabella probably taught the May-Pole Dance at one of her many parties (I used the steps of an English-country dance when I danced on the lawn).  Even if Miss Hattie did not dance around the May-Pole, the May-Pole Dance was a part of Rock Hill’s history. There were the May-Day festivities at the Winthrop Training School and at Winthrop College back in the day when I was growing up.

At Winthrop Training School which seems a ghastly name, for we were not a military school, even with the hideous barbed-wire fence, we celebrated May Day on the lawn beneath the old oak trees. May-Day was a beautiful tradition.

I remember watching Ann Ward, Patricia Rainwater, and others process. A program was presented. I remember the year our class danced around the May-Pole. Then, across Oakland Avenue in the amphitheater near the old chapel brought from Columbia, the Queen with her court reigned supreme. There were water lilies in the pool at the foot of the amphitheater where the audience sat.  Often members of the drama department at Winthrop danced or performed excerpts from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and danced on the narrow strip of grass to entertain the queen and her court. And, of course, there were delicious refreshments following the ceremony.
My final association with May-Pole dances occurred in May of 2011 when the Rock Hill Music Club offered a lovely celebration of all of the arts: music, dancing, poetry readings, paintings, flowers, and much, much more. Some of us danced, twirling one streamer in and out. What fun!
These are memories which I cherish, and during the fifty-two years I have taught English:  at the College of William and Mary, UNC-Asheville, Belmont-Abbey College, Limestone College, and York Technical College, I have encouraged students to write about their memories, to cherish them, and never to forget them, however painful at times. After all, it is from our memories that we sometimes share history, tell stories, and grow. Indeed, every time, I reread Robert Herrick’s “Corinna’s a Maying,” I consider a new way of teaching the dance.


Dr. Martha Benn Macdonald, a native of Rock Hill, is a retired college English instructor, storyteller, published writer, dancer, and musician. She also does floral arrangements, lives in her childhood home, gardens, and walks miles daily with her beloved Australian Cream Labradoodle, Lord Byron.

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