Thursday, 21 February 2013


US News & World Report has ranked Spelman College #1 amongst Historically Black Colleges and Universities.  The accolade is very well-deserved. The women who matriculate from Spelman are intelligent, self-assured and make their definite marks in the world.

Spelman College was founded in April 1881 as The Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary, in the basement of Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta, Georgia. Two White teachers, Harriet E. Giles and Sophia B. Packard, from Massachusetts, traveled to Atlanta specifically to found a school for black freedwomen, and found support from Frank Quarles, the pastor of Friendship Baptist Church. It would be the first of its kind.

Misses Giles and Packard began the school with 11 African-American women and $100 given to them by the First Baptist Church in Medford, Massachusetts, and a promise of further support from the Women's American Baptist Home Missionary Society (WABHMS). Although their first students were mostly illiterate, they envisioned their school to be a liberal arts institution, for smart, literate women, offering math, sciences, political science, philosophy, theology and languages. Over time, the two attracted more students. By the time the first term ended, they had enrolled 80 students in the seminary, and WABHMS made a down payment on a nine-acre site in Atlanta relatively close to the church, to serve as the new campus.

In 1882, the two women returned to Massachusetts to bid for more money and were introduced to wealthy, religious founder of Standard Oil, John D. Rockefeller, at a church conference in Ohio. Mr. Rockefeller was impressed by the teachers’ vision. In April 1884, he visited the seminary; and by this time, the school had 600 students and 16 faculty members. It was surviving on generous donations by Atlanta’s African-American community, the efforts of volunteer teachers, and gifts of school supplies. Many Atlanta Black churches, philanthropists, and Black community groups raised and donated money to pay for the new campus. 

John D. Rockefeller, 1885

Mr. Rockefeller was so impressed by their efforts, that he settled the debt on the property. His wife, Laura Celestia Spelman Rockefeller, his sister-in-law and his parents-in-law, were also supportive of the school, being longtime activists in the Abolitionist Movement. Thus, in 1884 the name of the school was changed to the Spelman Seminary, in honor of Laura Spelman Rockefeller.  Mr. Rockefeller also donated the funds for what is currently the oldest building on campus, Rockefeller Hall, which was constructed in 1886.

Spelman graduates, 1892

Laura Spelman Rockefeller

Rockefeller Hall
Miss Packard was appointed as Spelman's first president in 1888; and the first college degrees were awarded in 1901.  Miss Packard died in 1891, and Miss Giles assumed the presidency until her death in 1909. Spelman’s mission statement is: "to be dedicated to academic excellence in the liberal arts and sciences and the intellectual, creative, ethical, and leadership development of its students. Spelman empowers the whole person to engage the many cultures of the world and inspires a commitment to positive social change."

The years 1910 to 1953 saw great growth and transition for the seminary. The curriculum was strengthened and expanded; and the new buildings were constructed on campus. The Granddaughters' Club, a club for students whose mothers and aunts had attended Spelman was also created, and this club is still in existence, today.

Granddaughter's Club, 1965

In 1927, Spelman Seminary officially became Spelman College. Shortly thereafter, Spelman entered into an "agreement of affiliation" with nearby Morehouse College and Atlanta University (now Clark-Atlanta University) by chartering the Atlanta University Center in 1929.  Atlanta University awarded post-graduate degrees; whereas, Morehouse and Spelman awarded undergraduate degrees. At a time when Black students were often denied access to post-graduate educations at predominantly-White Southern research universities, access to Atlanta University allowed the undergraduate students at Morehouse and Spelman immediate access to graduate training.

Spelman also began to see an improvement in extracurricular investment in the arts, with the organization of the Spelman College Glee Club, inauguration of the much-loved Atlanta tradition of the annual Spelman-Morehouse Christmas Carol Concert and smaller theatrical and choral events.

Spelman-Morehouse Christmas Concert, 2011

Click here to see a 2-minute clip from a Spelman-Morehouse Christmas Carol Concert.  

Spelman celebrated its 50th Anniversary in April 1931 and continued to go from strength to strength, year on year. In 1953, Albert E. Manley became the first Black, as well as first male president of the college. Under his presidency and the presidency of his successor, Donald Stewart, Spelman saw significant growth, such as establishing its study abroad program, the Merrill Foreign Travel-Study Program.

Donald Stewart

By 1960, Spelman College students had become involved in the heated civil rights actions happening in Atlanta. That year, the first Spelman students were arrested for participating in sit-ins in the Atlanta community. Noted American historian, Howard Zinn, was a Professor of History at Spelman, during this era, and served as an advisor to the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) chapter at the college. Professor Zinn mentored many of Spelman's students fighting for civil rights at the time, including Pulitzer Prize-winning author, Alice Walker (The Color Purple and other bestsellers) and Marian Wright Edelman (founder of The Children’s Defense Fund).  He was fired from the college, in 1963, for supporting Spelman students in their efforts to fight segregation.  At the time, Spelman was focused on turning out “refined, young ladies.” Miss Edelman, herself, wrote that Spelman then had a reputation as “a tea-pouring, very strict school designed to turn Black girls into refined ladies and teachers.”

A young Howard Zinn
SNCC sit-in

Original SNCC buttons

A young Alice Waker

A young Marian Wright Edelman
President Donald Stewart retired in 1986, and the following year, Johnnetta Betsch Cole became the first, Black female president of Spelman College. During this time, the college became noted for its commitment to community service and its ties to the local community. Ms. Cole also led the college's most successful capital campaign; between 1986 and 1996, the college raised $113.8 million, including a $20 million gift from Bill Cosby and his wife, Camille Hanks Cosby, whose daughter attended Spelman. In honor of this gift, the Cosby Academic Center was constructed.

Bill Cosby, Johnnetta Cole & Camille Cosby

 In 1997, Cole stepped down and Audrey Forbes Manley became Spelman's first alumna president.   Some other notable alums are:  opera singer, Mattiwilda Dobbs; Marcelite J. Harris, the first African-American female to earn the rank of General in the US Air Force; Bernice King, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s daughter; and actress, Keshia Knight Pulliam, from The Cosby Show.

Audrey Manley

Marcelite Harris

Bernice King

Keshia Knight Pulliam

Today, Spelman can boast more than 2,100 students from 41 states and 15 foreign countries. Spelman empowers women to engage the many cultures of the world and inspires a commitment to positive, social change through service. The college is dedicated to academic excellence in the liberal arts and sciences and the intellectual, creative, ethical and leadership development of its students.  

In 2011, First Lady, Michelle Obama, delivered a truly inspiring commencement speech; and last year, Oprah Winfrey delivered a rousing commencement speech, encouraging the young women to go out and change the world. Many of them already have; and it is definite that many of them will do so in the future. Click here to see a 4-minute clip of the speech. 

Sources:  Wikipedia, Spelman College, Google Images, YouTube

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