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Historical Spelman

Harriet E. Giles

A pioneer and advocate for women's education, Harriet E. Giles's bold dream of creating change and more educational opportunities for Black women culminated in her co-founding Spelman College and leading the institution as its second president.

Giles, a New Salem, Mass., native, received her early education at local district schools. She attended New Salem Academy where she met Spelman co-founder Sophia B. Packard who was serving as the preceptress of the academy. In 1856, Giles graduated from New Salem and began her teaching career at local schools in Massachusetts. After opening the Rollstone School with Packard in the spring of 1856, the pair ended that endeavor a few months later and accepted teaching positions at the Connecticut Literary Institution.

 In 1864, she joined the faculty of the Oread Collegiate Institute in Worcester, Mass., – one of the first institutions in the country to provide a college education for women. She taught ornamentals and music. After leaving her position at Oread, Giles worked as a music teacher providing private lessons and concerts in the Boston area.

In 1877, Giles and Packard, along with a group of Baptist women organized the Woman's American Baptist Home Mission Society as an auxiliary to the American Baptist Home Mission Society. The group of 200 women united in support of women missionaries laboring in the field to bring education and Christianity to the Native American and African-American communities.

In 1880, Giles joined Packard on a trip commissioned by the Women's Society to assess the living conditions of Black people in the South. It was during that time that Giles and Packard discovered the overwhelming need for educational opportunities for Black women and girls. Their passion, leadership and commitment led to the launch of the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary – now known as Spelman College – on April 11, 1881.             

Historical Highlights During Giles' Administration

  • Giles became Spelman's second president in 1891 after the death of Sophia Packard. During the same year, the Missionary Training Department started, Quarles Library opened in Packard Hall (1891); and two students from Africa, Maggie Rattray and Lena Clark, enrolled at the school. Dean Lucy Houghton Upton was responsible for the academic direction for the seminary.
  • In 1892, the Teachers Professional Department begins and the Spelman Alumnae Association was organized.
  • Giles Hall was dedicated in her honor in 1893. During her presidency, several other buildings were dedicated including in 1900 Morehouse and Morgan halls, MacVicar Hospital, and Reynolds Cottage and in 1905 Upton Home.
  • In 1901, the first College degrees were granted to Jane Anna Granderson and Claudia T. White.
  • After 18 years of service, Giles died Nov. 12, 1909.