To Spelman College, Happy Founder’s Day!

Spelman graduates in 1892, Cotillion Online/ Spelman Archives

While Shannon and Sherry are black college alums from Howard University and Florida A&M University, respectively, I am the only one that went to a University of California school. But in my high school days, I was smitten with Spelman College. When I received my acceptance package, I was all ready to be black and womanly down in Atlanta like the lyrics of Outkast’s Southernplayalistic described. Of course, their light financial aid package changed my mind on attending the historical institution but Spelman still holds a special place in my heart. Today April 11 marks the all women school’s Founder’s Day, they opened their doors in 1881, so from Parlour to all of the alums and current students, happy 131 years of education and service! May there be many more, especially considering the difficulties many black colleges have been facing in the past few years. Perhaps fashion should restart the black college sweatshirt trend that was so hot in America during the 1990s …

For those unfamiliar, here’s a bit of Spelman’s history below:

Spelman, one of the nation’s most highly regarded colleges for women, was founded by Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles, two friends who were commissioned in 1879 by the Woman’s American Baptist Home Mission Society to study the living conditions “among the freedmen of the South.” Appalled by the lack of educational opportunity for Black women, the missionaries returned to Boston determined to effect change. On April 11, 1881, they opened a school in the basement of Atlanta’s Friendship Baptist Church with $100 provided by the congregation of the First Baptist Church of Medford, Massachusetts. The first eleven pupils, ten women and one girl, were mostly ex-slaves, determined to learn to read the Bible and write.

Totally dedicated, Misses Packard and Giles returned to the North in 1882 for more funds. At a church meeting in Cleveland, Ohio, they were introduced to Mr. John D. Rockefeller who emptied his wallet during the collection and questioned the two women’s intentions:

“You know,” he said, “there are so many who come here and get us to give money. Then they’re gone, and we don’t know where they are–where their work is. Do you mean to stick? If you do, you’ll hear from me again.”

Determined to succeed, the women took an option on an Atlanta site that had been used as barracks and drill grounds for federal troops during the Civil War. Sustained by their faith, Misses Packard and Giles worked diligently to gain additional financial support. Subsequently, title of the property was transferred to the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary, and in February 1883, the school relocated to its new nine-acre site, which included five frame buildings with both classroom and residence hall space. In an effort to liquidate the debt, more than $4,000 was raised by the Black community, $3,000 by the Negro Baptists of Georgia, and another $1,300 from individual contributions. Other important gifts and contributions kept operating costs at a minimum. Teachers volunteered their services and gifts of furnishings; supplies and clothing were sent from the North. As enrollment steadily increased, the normal school curriculum was expanded to include sewing, cooking, millinery, and other preeminently practical subjects.

In April 1884 on the third anniversary of the founding of the school, Mr. John D. Rockefeller was indeed heard from again. Visiting the school with Mrs. Rockefeller, her sister and her mother, Mrs. Lucy Henry Spelman, Mr. Rockefeller was impressed enormously with the seminary and settled the debt on the property. Later, the name of the school was changed to Spelman Seminary in honor of the Spelman family, longtime activists in the Anti-Slavery Movement.
In addition to stabilizing a tenuous financial situation, the Rockefeller gift established an interest and recognition that otherwise might have taken years to achieve. Financial support from new sources helped to broaden the school’s involvement in community, social, and church work. The Slater Fund, already underwriting the cost of teaching new trade subjects, provided the money to set up a printing department. The Spelman Messenger (1884), the school’s first major publication, became an important instrument for disseminating practical information, especially for families in rural areas.

As the mushrooming enrollment taxed the school’s modest facilities, Mr. Rockefeller responded by donating funds for a magnificent $40,000 brick building, the first major construction on the Spelman campus. In 1887, Rockefeller Hall, named for its donor, was succeeded by another major building, Packard Hall. Completed in 1888, the building was dedicated to the work, vision, and self-sacrifice of Sophia Packard, who worked assiduously to acquire a state charter for the school. In 1888 the charter was granted, and the Board of Trustees officially expressed its gratitude by appointing Miss Packard as Spelman’s first president.

Read the rest at Spelman College.

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