Forbidden love

There was a time when romantic relationships between Elon students were not as common as one might think.

By Roselee Papandrea

When Leland I. Gay of Norfolk, Va., and Edna “Marie” Winn of Baltimore attended Elon College in the early 1900s, the odds of finding love at the school were slim.

Granted, Elon was among the few colleges at the time that accepted both men and women. It was believed then that women could benefit by attending classes with men as long as they sat on opposite sides of the room. But it was controversial and social norms and the school’s reputation were always at stake, which meant out-of-class contact between male and female students was strictly monitored.

Despite the limited contact, love still blossomed for Leland and Marie—even when faculty and staff did their best to keep the couple apart. The details of this love story are chronicled in the 1907 faculty minutes found in the Elon University Belk Library Archives and Special Collections, and they offer a glimpse into a time when romantic relationships were not all that common on coeducational campuses.

The relationship between Leland and Marie apparently advanced during spring semester that year. In March 1907, the couple received five demerits for passing notes and were denied social privileges for a month because they were walking and talking together on Lebanon Avenue, an event labeled in the minutes as a “clandestine meeting.” Chatting on campus seems innocent enough now, but according to Elon’s regulations of the day, students of the opposite sex were not allowed to talk to one another unless a chaperone was present. Written correspondence was strictly forbidden without the consent of a parent or guardian, and women were only allowed recreation on the eastern half of campus.

There were a handful of days when the “rules relative to young men and women were suspended” and they had the “privilege of the campus.” Those included Thanksgiving, Washington’s Birthday, the week of Commencement and Easter Monday. According to faculty minutes, on that year’s Easter Monday, which fell on April 1, Leland was permitted to call on young ladies from 3 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. Marie was allowed to receive company for the same hours. The minutes don’t say whether the two actually met that day, however, the events that transpired the following month hint that a plan may have been put into place around that time.

By early May, it was clear to faculty the relationship between Leland and Marie was serious. Rumors emerged that they planned to marry, so faculty wrote to Marie’s father, F.J. Winn, in Portsmouth, Va., to inform him of “conditions and to take precautions against the elopement.” In a letter received May 17, F.J. Winn made it clear he didn’t want the marriage to take place. The faculty sent him word he should take his daughter home at once. Less than a week later, faculty learned Marie had received a letter from her father. His instructions were clear: She was not to marry Leland.

But rumors continued. Faculty believed that on May 28, Leland and Marie intended to elope by taking a 9 p.m. train to Greensboro, N.C. That news prompted then-Elon College President Emmett L. Moffitt to send a terse telegram to F.J. Winn on May 24: “Come to Elon tomorrow without fail.” Winn refused. “Your telegram received late this morning. Utterly impossible for me to come to Elon at this time. Be easy. NO marriage will take place between Mr. Gay and my daughter before my consent is given.”

Winn was confident Marie would abide by his wishes. The faculty was not so sure and voted on May 27 to put a guard outside Marie’s room in West Hall. She was under “surveillance” until a woman, who claimed to be her aunt from Maryland, showed up on campus to take her to Baltimore. Moffitt wired Winn to let him know. Winn said Marie should leave with her aunt. The minutes say they left for Baltimore at 5 p.m. on May 29.

That’s where the narrative in the faculty minutes ends, but Leland and Marie’s relationship did not. In fact, the train Marie and her aunt boarded that day headed to Greensboro, N.C., not Baltimore. According to a May 30, 1907, wedding announcement in The (Greensboro) Daily Industrial News, Leland and Marie got married at 9 p.m. on May 29 in St. Barnabes Episcopal Church in the presence of several friends. Carl H. Herndon was Leland’s best man and the “dame of honor” was a Mrs. A. W. German of Lutherville, Md., probably Marie’s aunt.

Following the ceremony, Leland and Marie left on northbound train No. 34 for Baltimore with plans to go to Leland’s home in Norfolk. According to Ancestry Library records, in June of the following year, they had Leland Ishmael, the first of four children. Sara, Sterling Edward and Louise followed over the next six years. It is unclear what became of Leland and Marie’s relationship. Records show Leland remarried in 1920, but Marie’s fate is unknown. One thing is certain: this couple defied the odds with a love that blossomed at Elon.