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Alumnae Stories

Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles, Founders

April 2020

Founders With Spelman Seminary Students in 1886Every year on Founders Day at Spelman College, we must honor the two missionary women who journeyed together from New England to Georgia with the mission of creating an educational opportunity to uplift recently freed Black women.

On that extraordinary day, April 11, 1881, Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles, supported by a village of allies and advocates, began the Spelman legacy. Packard said in her own words in a letter dated April 11, 1881:

Start of QuoteThe vestry of Dr. Quarles’ church was offered [to] us free of charge, and it was thought best that we open a school there for women and girls. They all said the women of Georgia had been neglected and they fully believed the Lord had sent us and it was best we had come just now…We have been visiting during the week and find many who wish to attend school - the women many of them say we End of Quotehave been praying for a Baptist school and the Lord has answered our prayer.

The Legacy Begins . . .

Spelman College's First President Sophia PackardAnd so, on that indeed destined, legendary day, April 11, 1881, only equipped with a pad and pencil, Packard and Giles held the very first class of the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary in the basement of Father Quarles’ Friendship Baptist Church. There were eleven pupils present for the momentous occasion, ten women and one girl, all eager for an education they weren’t previously permitted for most were women who’d been emancipated from slavery. Packard and Giles were deeply moved by both the sacrifices the students were making to attend the school, and the joy they experienced at being able to read their Bibles for the first time.

Within just three months, enrollment had increased to eighty students, and soon after, the student body grew to over 200 students, ranging in age from 16 – 52.  As interest in the Seminary grew and the desire for education became greater, the demand for increased resources and improved facilities became increasingly imperative. In the face of financial obstacles, Packard and Giles both worked diligently to promote their vision of an advanced school, and inspire donations from those whose attention they captivated.

Promoting the Importance of Educating Women

Spelman College FoundersIn a letter dated March 6, 1882, regarding one of her meetings with local church members, Giles wrote, “[We] urged upon them the importance of educating the women; that it was a great mistake to do so much more for the men and so little for the women…. We told them why we were here and of the school. We were surprised not only at their expressions of sympathy and readiness to cooperate in the work, but still more so when they each pledged something for the “Girl's Building.”

Soon after, our founders’ fundraising efforts paid off in a major way. In the summer of 1882, business magnate and philanthropist, John D. Rockefeller, was in the congregation of the Wilson Avenue Baptist Church in Cleveland where Packard made an appeal to Northern churches. Impressed, he became a devoted investor of the Seminary, and afforded Packard and Giles the opportunity to purchase our present campus site, then occupying five frame buildings on nine acres of land.

In 1884, the school was renamed Spelman Seminary in honor of his wife Mrs. Laura Spelman Rockefeller and her parents Harvey Buel and Lucy Henry Spelman, both activists in the antislavery movement. In 1924, our name was changed to Spelman College, and the rest is epic history!

Over the past 139 years, Spelman has evolved from the seed planted by Packard and Giles, and nourished by the many scholars, educators, architects, activists, artists, and more who all poured their time, talents, and treasures into our beloved institution. We believe they would all be astonished by how profoundly Spelman has exceeded our founders’ own bold imagination. In honor of them, and our entire community of students, alumnae, faculty, staff, parents, family, and friends, we’re committed to continue the legacy our founders bestowed upon us, and ascend to even greater achievements, within and beyond Spelman’s gates, for the next 139 years to come.

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