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Equality: The Inaugural Address - Page 2

Delivered by Dr. Mary Schmidt Campbell, Ph.D.,
10th President of Spelman College
Saturday, April 9, 2016 | Download Speech

MSC3On the evenings that we got together to discuss his biography, we’d enjoy the fellowship of dinner. After dinner, we’d debate. We’d debate the ideas of Hamilton’s political rivals — Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and Aaron Burr; or we’d marvel at his way with words or try to penetrate his sharp thinking on our Constitution, our banking system he invented, or his ideas about national debt and foreign policy. We’d chastise him for his behavior towards women.

As we sat in Reynolds and I listened to our Spelman women, I thought to myself — when the founding fathers birthed this country, and when they insisted on equality, never in their wildest dreams could they have imagined this room full of free-thinking Black women. Never could they have imagined a room full of our beautiful Black Spelman women having debates about them.

Equality, over 200 years ago, was a private club. The Founding Fathers were among the exclusive members, and their rooms were closed. There were a few, like Hamilton, who could see beyond those closed rooms. A few could look out over the oceans of time and see the possibility of full equality --- a tiny speck in the distance, an unknown destination. Most could not have imagined a Spelman College, an entire school full of free-thinking Black women.

It would take almost 100 years after the country’s founding, a civil war and emancipation before a school like Spelman was even a possibility. Like the founding of the country itself, there was no precedent for Spelman --- no models, no blueprints. Spelman was an act of the imagination, a realization of an ideal of equality; and the belief that women, Black women, could receive an outstanding education.

Unlike the country’s founders, Spelman’s founders were women --- teachers, two white Baptist missionaries who believed unequivocally in the power of education. We just celebrated Founders Day and we retold the story of Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles, who hailed from Salem, Massachusetts and traveled to Atlanta in March of 1881, determined to start a school for recently freed Black women.

Our Founders Day narrative includes Father Quarles, a legend in 19th century Black Atlanta. Father Quarles had founded Friendship Baptist Church and in its basement, he founded what would become Morehouse College for Black men. When Packard and Giles showed up on his doorstep, he offered the basement of Friendship Baptist once again as an incubator for a new school -- this time for Black women.

One hundred and thirty-five years ago, the promise of this school, with its exacting standards and high expectations, was powerful. Local women would send $2 or $5 donations for this incredible beacon of hope. One Sunday, at a church service in Cleveland, where Packard was speaking fervently about the school in her effort to raise money, the wealthy industrialist, John D. Rockefeller was in the congregation; and on the spot, he made a gift. Eventually, in honor of his many subsequent gifts, the school was named after the family of his wife Laura Spelman Rockefeller.

Never in their wildest dreams would our founding fathers have imagined a coalition like the one that built Spelman College: women as well as men; the very poor and the very rich; Black people joined with white people; north joined with south. They were a coalition of the faithful, a coalition that came together in postbellum America at a time when the country had been cleaved explosively.

This coalition of the faithful pushed and pulled against their differences, against burgeoning Jim Crow law and separatism, to birth a new school, to educate a new woman, to build new citizens and new communities, and to make a new world.

Who was this new woman? Most Black women in Atlanta in the late 19th century were laundresses, maids, hotel and domestic workers. They endured long hours, low wages and inhumane working conditions. But, in the summer of 1881, a few months after the school opened, those laundresses in Atlanta and in other cities of the south, rose up and organized and went on strike in Atlanta. Freedom was not sufficient. They demanded equality. Freedom was their ticket; equality was their destination and they insisted on a voice for themselves in mapping their way to that destination. Their voices are part of the founding narrative of Spelman as well.

It’s not surprising that, offered the opportunity of a first-rate education, many of these same Black women flocked to this new school, the Atlanta Female Baptist Seminary. As word of this new school swept through Atlanta and beyond, the school’s population grew by leaps and bounds. By the turn of the 20th century, and by the time Spike Lee’s grandmother graduated, the school had become Spelman College and Spelman graduates had become the cornerstone of their communities. Spelman graduates were the teachers, the nurses and the missionaries who were building schools in Liberia and the Congo.

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