Spelman College is a historically Black women’s college in Atlanta, Georgia, that is now part of the Atlanta University Center Consortium. Over the years, Spelman has played a key role in training African American women for leadership and preparing them for graduate study. Spelman currently has about 2,100 students from forty-one states and fifteen foreign countries. With a ranking of 75, it was the only historically Black institution included in U.S. News & World Report’s 2008 listing of the top 100 liberal arts colleges in the United States. The college also has the highest graduation rate among historically Black institutions, and at 77 percent, its record surpasses the graduation rate for Black students at a number of high-ranking public and private institutions.
Spelman was established following the Civil War to educate emancipated slaves. Two New England women, Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles, founded Spelman in 1881 not only to teach women and girls to read, write, and do simple arithmetic, but also to prepare them to serve as teachers, missionaries, and church workers. Practical skills were also stressed as part of preparing students to be good homemakers and mothers.
In 1882, after hearing a presentation by Packard and Giles at Wilson Avenue Church in Cleveland, Ohio, one of the church members, John D. Rockefeller, became a lifelong contributor both to the school and to African American education in general. With additional support from the American Baptist Home Mission Society and its women’s auxiliary, nine acres of land and five buildings—former Union Army barracks—were purchased. The financial support of Mr. and Mrs. John D. Rockefeller, Sr., together with other gifts ranging from $1 to $1,000, made it possible to complete payment of the mortgage.
The school moved to its new location in February 1883, and Packard and Giles fought a proposal to merge the female seminary with the Atlanta Baptist Seminary, a school for males. Packard and Giles believed that their female students would be better served by keeping the schools separate. To do so, they had to raise enough money to support separate schools, and they received money from Baptists in the North and African American Baptists in Georgia. The Rockefellers donated the remaining amount needed, and in 1884, the school’s name was changed to Spelman Seminary in honor of Laura Spelman Rockefeller and her parents.
The curriculum expanded to include college preparatory classes equivalent to high school. A nurse training department opened in 1886, followed in 1891 by a missionary training department. A new building was dedicated in 1918 to house the expanded home economics program. Spelman Seminary established the College Department in 1897, although most of the college work was at nearby Morehouse College.
One of the most significant events in Spelman’s history occurred in 1924, when it changed from a seminary to a full-fledged college intended to provide a liberal arts education to its students. Under the leadership of Florence Matilda Read, who served as president from 1927 to 1953, the curriculum was expanded, with college courses established in the humanities, fine arts, social sciences, and natural sciences.
Albert E. Manley, the first Black and first male president, succeeded Read in 1953, ending nearly a half century of New England leadership. During his tenure from 1953 to 1976, Spelman strengthened its liberal arts program with the addition of non-Western and ethnic studies courses. Several other new programs were implemented in the 1970s, including freshman orientation and freshman studies, the health careers program, the family planning program, and cooperative programs with non-Black institutions.
Spelman women were active in the civil rights movement. Harry Lefever, Professor Emeritus of Sociology at Spelman, documents their participation both in Atlanta and across the South in his 2005 book, Undaunted by the Fight: Spelman College and the Civil Rights Movement, 1957–1967. Among those playing leadership roles was Marion Wright (Edelman), who later founded the Children’s Defense Fund. Howard Zinn, author of A People’s History of the United States and a member of the Spelman history faculty from 1956 to 1963, played an active role in mentoring and supporting student activists.
When Manley announced his retirement, many faculty and students assumed that in this time of new opportunities for women, the next Spelman president would be a woman. Student protests followed the appointment of an African American man, Donald Mitchell Stewart, but Stewart assumed the presidency in 1976. During his ten-year tenure, several new programs were established, including the honors program, the comprehensive writing program, and the continued education program.
The Women’s Research and Resource Center, established in 1981, was the first women’s research center at a historically Black institution. The center subsequently played a leadership role in the development of a women’s studies minor and a multidisciplinary major in comparative women’s studies. In addition to partnering with other departments to offer courses exploring issues of gender and race, the center sponsors a variety of national and international conferences and continues to support African feminist scholarship and activism. In 2004, the center joined with Sister Love, Inc., to organize a global conference on HIV/AIDS among girls and women in Africa and the African diaspora. Most recently, the center has undertaken a three-year project funded by the Ford Foundation that will explore and strengthen links among women’s studies scholars, departments, and programs in Africa and the African diaspora.
In 1987, Johnnetta Betsch Cole stepped into the role of seventh president of Spelman College, the first African American woman to do so in its 106-year history. Under her leadership, Spelman achieved national status as one of the leading liberal arts colleges in the United States. She presided over a campaign that raised $114 million, the largest amount that had been raised by a Black college or university. The endowment was tripled, rising from $42 million to $143 million. After leaving Spelman in 1998, Cole joined the Emory University faculty as the Presidential Distinguished Scholar at Emory University, where she is now professor emerita. Cole served as president of historically Black Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina, from 2002 to 2007.
In 1998, Audrey Forbes Manley, a Spelman graduate and widow of Albert Manley, became the first alumna to serve as president of Spelman. The first African American to be appointed Assistant U.S. Surgeon General, Audrey Manley also served as Acting Surgeon General of the United States prior to her appointment to the Spelman presidency. As first lady of Spelman, she had played a key role in the establishment of Spelman’s health-careers program in 1971. Under her leadership, Spelman continued to strengthen its position as a leader in educating women in the sciences. Today, about one quarter of Spelman students major in science, engineering, or math. The school ranks second only to Xavier University, a historically Black institution in New Orleans, in the number of graduates who attend medical school. According to American Medical Association data for 2001, Xavier sent ninety-four students to medical school, followed by Spelman, with thirty-eight, and Harvard University, with thirty-seven.
Beverly Daniel Tatum succeeded Audrey Manley in 2002, becoming the ninth president of Spelman. Under her leadership, Spelman has established several new “centers of distinction.” Among them is the Center for Leadership and Civic Engagement (LEADS), formed in 2003. A year later, LEADS sponsored its first national leadership conference. Sisters Center for WISDOM (Women in Spiritual Discernment of Ministry) was also launched in 2004. Its goals include student development and leadership training programs, faculty and staff development, and community outreach. In 2007, global investment bank Lehman Brothers and Spelman announced the formation of a partnership to establish the Lehman Brothers Center for Global Finance and Economic Development. Lehman Brothers committed $10 million to support new interdisciplinary courses, a scholarship program, and recruitment of new faculty.
The college continues to offer a wide range of innovative programs, including the Summer Art Colony in Portobello, Panama, which gives students an opportunity to live, work, and study in the Caribbean; the Japan Studies Program, which includes an exchange program and an intensive four-year summer program in Japan; and the Spelman Independent Scholars Oral History Project, which pairs students with mentors from the community in a two-semester interdisciplinary and intergenerational program. Spelman also offers a five-year dual-degree program through which students can earn a bachelor’s of engineering from one of twelve participating schools, including Georgia Institute of Technology, the University of Michigan, and Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute.
- Cole, J. B. (1994). Conversations: Straight talk with America’s sister president. New York: Doubleday.
- Cole, J. B. (1997). Dream the boldest dreams: And other lessons of life. Marietta, GA: Longstreet.
- Guy-Sheftall, B. (1993). Spelman College. In D. C. Hine (Ed.), Black women in America: An historical encyclopedia (Vol. 2, pp. 1091–1095). Brooklyn, NY: Carlson.
- Guy-Sheftall, B., & Stewart, J. M. (1981). Spelman: A centennial celebration. Charleston, NC: Delmar/Spelman College.
- Lefever, H. G. (2005). Undaunted by the fight: Spelman College and the civil rights movement, 1957–1967. Macon, GA: Mercer University Press.
- Manley, A. E. (1995). A legacy continues: The Manley years at Spelman College, 1953–1976. Lanham, MD: University Press of America.
- Read, F. (1961). The story of Spelman College. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
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