The Arch: A witness to time

If only that Arch could talk. 

It could tell of political protests and silent vigils, memorials to deceased students, and long lines of happy new graduates waiting to pose for a family photo beside the three pillars of the Arch, which stand for wisdom, justice and moderation. 

In its 150-year history, the Arch has been the site of celebration and despair.

For 150 years, the black iron arch—fired at the old Athens foundry—has served as the University of Georgia’s most visible symbol. Yet it is cloaked in intrigue, its past a mystery even to the most educated scholars.

Commissioned in 1856, the Arch was built sometime between then and 1858, but no one can say for sure the exact year it was constructed. It was part of the iron fence erected to secure the campus. Gates were part of the structure, closing off the passageway beneath the Arch at night. The gates disappeared sometime in 1885, likely the victim of a midnight prank. 

While it has witnessed celebration, the Arch has at times seen the University at its worst. 

In 1961, UGA students protested when the University granted admission to its first two African-American students, Hamilton Holmes (BS ’63) and Charlayne Hunter-Gault (AB ’63). The Arch became the gathering site for the UGA community—some to protest and some in support of desegregation.

Over the years, the Arch’s prominent location has made it a popular choice for political protests. Hugh Ruppersburg, senior associate dean at the Franklin College of Arts and Sciences, remembers students protesting the Persian Gulf War and a demonstration following the 1970 shootings at Kent State University.

“A day or two after the Kent State killings in May, the Arch was a place where students gathered,” says Ruppersburg (AB ’72). “That was a very big event. There was a lot of passion and emotion.” 

In 2001, the Arch was the site of a memorial to the victims of 9/11. 

“I remember right after Sept. 11 students put candles around the Arch,” Ruppersburg says. “It was a very poignant event. It didn’t seem planned. Once again the Arch became a focal point for the expression of grief.”

For most graduates, visiting the Arch after commencement is a rite of passage. Since the 1900s, tradition has held that students may not pass beneath the Arch until they have received a diploma from UGA. Legend has it that the tradition began when Daniel Huntley Redfearn (BL ’09, BS ’10) arrived as a freshman and vowed not to pass beneath the Arch until he had graduated. One of Redfearn’s professors heard the vow and repeated it to his class, and the story stuck. 

Years of following the tradition are visible on the concrete steps leading to the Arch. Steps to each side have been worn down over the years as faithful undergraduates have kept their vows. 

Patrick Ennis, a senior studying psychology, accidentally walked under the Arch and has spent the rest of his time at UGA trying to convince himself that the legend is not real by purposefully breaking the tradition. “I’d go out of my way to walk under it sometimes,” he says. 

But for many students, disproving the legend just doesn’t have the same allure as finally taking that first step beneath the Arch with a diploma in hand.

“I think the Arch is important for everyone, regardless of how much school spirit you have,” says Tiffany Holder (AB ’07), who walked under the Arch for the first time in May. “Besides the tradition of it, it is also just fun to know that our graduation will be marked with joining millions of others from the past who all chose to wait and walk through the Arch.”

From Georgia Magazine
September 2007
Vol 86: No. 4

Published Thursday,