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West Virginia Elementary School Criticized for ‘Hobo Day’ Celebration. Could South Dakota State’s Homecoming Fall Victim to Political Correctness?

(Photo By Ty Carlson/Inertia)
South Dakota State University’s Hobo Day Parade. (Photo By Ty Carlson/Inertia)

The Times They Are a-Changin’

Those famous lyrics, written by Bob Dylan more than 50 years ago, are as true now as they’ve ever been.

Topics like immigration and gay marriage continue to be divisive issues, while displays of traditional symbols like the Confederate flag and the Ten Commandments have come under fire around the United States.

Controversies have even worked their way into our schools, where several nicknames deemed offensive to some have been dropped in favor of more ‘politically correct’ monikers. And now certain long-celebrated traditions are being called into question.

Just last month, the Sioux Falls Argus Leader ran a column insisting that Watertown High School end its’ Ki-Yi Days homecoming pageant, which dates back to 1924, and features students clad in Native American outfits.

Opposition to that celebration sparked an online petition drive to have it stopped, and, according to the Argus Leader, has collected nearly 2,000 signatures so far.

Now there’s another controversy brewing that could eventually call into question the future of the homecoming celebration at South Dakota’s largest university.

In Southwestern West Virginia, St. Albans high school is being criticized for dubbing one of last week’s five homecoming dress-up days as ‘Hobo Day’, where students were encouraged to dress in tattered clothes and ‘things that might be associated with a migrant worker from the late 1800s’.

One local group upset at the ‘Hobo Day’ celebration was the Covenant House in Charleston, West Virginia. The facility sees between 120 and 150 people each day at their drop-in center, which offers people a place to wash clothes, shower, and have a place to go in inclement weather.

Ellen Allen, executive director of Covenant House, said:

There’s an acceptance that it’s OK to make fun of people and to talk in inappropriate ways [about the homeless] in ways we no longer talk about people of other ethnicities and LGBT people.

There’s a political correctness that doesn’t exist with people of poverty.

In a recent editorial, the Cumberland Times-News in Cumberland, Maryland, also took issue with the ‘Hobo Day’ theme:

We wouldn’t necessarily agree that it is “OK” to make fun of the homeless and talk about them in inappropriate ways for the simple reason that we just don’t hear that kind of talk. When was the last time you heard a homeless-person joke?

The odds are slim indeed that St. Albans’ “hobo day” was intended to poke fun at the homeless or anyone else. What we wonder is why they would have it in the first place.

In response to the complaints, St. Albans principal, Jeff Kelley said:

I think our student and staff population understand there’s a difference in Thursday’s [dress-up day] and what’s going on in society with homeless people.

I can understand if they thought it was homeless day and that would be inappropriate, but that was not what the day was called.

I would hope no one would think there was malicious intent. That’s not to the intent of anything during homecoming and if someone perceived it that way, we will try to keep that in mind in the future.

Translation: You’ve probably seen the end of ‘Hobo Day’ at St. Albans high school.

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South Dakota knows all about ‘Hobo Day’ celebrations. It’s been the theme of South Dakota State’s homecoming celebration since 1912. This year’s event is the week of October 19-24.

SDSU’s ‘Hobo Day’ is actually a week long celebration, leading into the homecoming football game. It is overseen by a organizing committee, led by the ‘Grand Pooba’, and features the crowning of the ‘Hobo Days’ king and queen, ‘Weary Wil’ and ‘Dirty Lil’.

Each year, ‘Hobo Days’ in Brookings features events like:

  • One Month Club: Males grow their beards out and females grow out their leg hair. The male and female with the longest hair wins.
  • Scavenger Hunt Each team is given a list of things to find from around campus. Examples include a bag of the Grand Pooba’s favorite candy, and an SDSU pin.
  • Bum Olympics Teams from various campus organizations and residence halls compete in a variety of “hobo” athletics.
  • Miss Homelycoming This event allows the male population to compete in a beauty pageant dressed as girls. Talent, swimsuit, and interview are some of the judged categories.
  • Bum-A-Meal Students sign up to participate in a meal one evening of the Hobo week. When they arrive for the event, they are given an address and go to eat at a home in the Brookings community.
  • Bonfire Traditionally, the Thursday night before the game, students flock out to the “Backyard” for a large bonfire. The local fire department has a large presence at this event! A concert often occurs before or after the bonfire.

The highlight of ‘Hobo Days’ is the annual parade, the morning of the homecoming football game. At least one future President has been a ‘Hobo Day’ participant – candidate Dwight Eisenhower drove a ‘Bum Mobile’ in the 1952 parade.

‘Hobo Day’ is so big it even has its’ own Wikipedia page!

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The event did run into trouble in 1990, when celebrations were marred by rioting students who set fires and overturned vehicles near campus. Damage estimates were set at $30,000 and nine people were arrested.

In the aftermath of the riot, Brookings officials changed some city ordinances to limit large house parties. There have been no repeat incidents in the last 25 years.

Despite the unrest, the future of ‘Hobo Days’ in Brookings were never really in serious jeopardy. But could a ground swell of political correctness be the thing that ultimately brings down an event that has been a source of celebration and community pride for more than 100 years?

Let’s hope not.

But I have a feeling it’s a question of when, not if, someone will take offense to the ‘Hobo Days’ theme and call for its’ end. That would be a sad day for South Dakota indeed.

But like Mr. Dylan said:

The Times They Are a-Changin’

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