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Historical Spelman

Sophia B. Packard

Spelman President Sophia B. PackardVision, courage and the extraordinary determination to create change in a racially divided nation paved Sophia B. Packard's pathway to co-founding Spelman College and becoming the institution's first president.

Packard, born on Jan. 3, 1824, in New Salem, Mass., began her lifelong career in education at the early age of 14.  She alternated attending and teaching in local rural schools graduating from the Female Seminary in Charlestown, Mass., in 1850. She served as a teacher and preceptor at the New Salem Academy where she met Harriet E. Giles. Long before they would co-found Spelman, the pair opened the Rollstone School in March 1859. 

A few months later they closed the school and accepted teaching positions at the Connecticut Literary Institution. In 1864, Packard joined the faculty of Oread Collegiate Institute in Worcester, Mass. It was there she would develop her skills as a teacher and administrator as co-ordinate principal until taking a leave from education and working in management at the Empire Insurance Co. in Boston.

In 1870, she became a pastor's assistant, an uncommon position for women, which led her to pursue her expanding interest in Christian reform movements. In 1877, Packard and Harriet Giles, 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. Packard was elected the first treasurer, then corresponding secretary of the 200 women united in support of women missionaries laboring in the field to bring education and Christianity to Native American and African-American communities.

In 1880, the Woman's Society sent her on a trip to assess the living conditions of Black People in the South. Giles joined her on the mission. Their discovery of deplorable living conditions and the overwhelming need for educational opportunities – especially for Black women – led to the launch of the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary, now known as Spelman College, on April 11, 1881.          

Historical Highlights During Packard's Leadership

  • Packard and Giles were introduced to John D. Rockefeller who pledged $250 to the school in 1882. He would later contribute $5,000 discharging the remaining debt and establishing the Seminary. In 1883, the school moved to its present location occupying nine acres and five frame buildings.
  • In 1884, the name changed to Spelman Seminary in honor of Mrs. Laura Spelman Rockefeller and her parents Harvey Buel and Lucy Henry Spelman, longtime activists in the antislavery movement. An elementary school and an infirmary were also opened that year.
  • Spelman students printed the first issue of the Spelman Messenger in 1885. In 1886, Rockefeller Hall was dedicated, and the nurse training department began.
  • The first Spelman class graduated in 1887 receiving high school diplomas.
  • In 1888, a charter was granted by the state of Georgia. Spelman was incorporated under a Board of Trustees who named Packard as Spelman's first president. During that same year, Packard Hall was dedicated in her honor.
  • Before her death in 1891, Packard saw the school's enrollment grow from 11 to 800 students, more than half of whom lived on campus; and the faculty flourish to 33.