Skip to main content

Spelman College

Spelman College

Spelman College is the oldest black women's college in the United States. Located in Atlanta, Georgia, Spelman is a four-year liberal arts institution that has traditionally offered both the B.A. and B.S. degrees. Renowned for scholastic excellence and community involvement, Spelman was also one of the founding institutions of the Atlanta University Center.

Spelman College was founded in April 1881 as the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary by Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles, two New England educators who had long been involved in education for women. While Packard and Giles were conducting a survey on the condition of the freedpersons in the South for the Women's American Baptist Home Mission Society (WABHMS), they became increasingly distressed over the lack of schools for black women. Upon their return to Boston, they were determined to raise the funds necessary to open a school for black girls in the South. After receiving $100 from the First Baptist Church of Medford, Massachusetts, WABHMS finally agreed to sponsor their effort. They arrived in Atlanta, where they met with the Reverend Frank Quarles, who offered the basement of his Friendship Baptist Church as the first home for the new school. When the school opened, there were eleven students; fifteen months later eighty pupils were in regular attendance.

Desperate for financial support, the two women traveled to Cleveland in the summer of 1882 to speak at a church meeting. In attendance at that meeting was John D. Rockefeller, who pledged $250 toward a building for the school. It was the first of his donations toward black education, which eventually totaled millions of dollars.

In 1883 the school moved into what were former Union army officer barracks, which had been purchased by the American Baptist Home Mission Society (ABHMS). The school had grown to 293 students with over thirty boarders. Industrial courses, paid for by a grant from the Slater Fund, were also begun that year. A model school was opened for observation and practice teaching, and as a result, an elementary normal course was introduced.

The buildings were paid off with the help of financial gifts from Rockefeller, and the school continued to grow. In honor of Laura Spelman Rockefeller (John D. Rockefeller's wife), the name of the school was changed to Spelman Seminary in 1884. The school was officially designated for females only and had grown to over 350 day pupils and 100 boarders. The students were taught a traditional New England classical curriculum. Courses included mathematics, English grammar and literature, geography, and natural philosophy. The girls' education was comparable to the education boys were receiving at nearby Atlanta Baptist Seminary, which later became Atlanta Baptist College and (in 1913) Morehouse College. In a spelling match against the boys, the girls from Spelman took top honors. In addition, the girls were also taught cooking, sewing, general housework, and laundry skills.

A printing press was purchased as a result of another gift from the Slater Fund, and the Spelman Messenger began publication in March 1885. Students were trained in typesetting and composition and began to contribute articles to the publication. The first six high school graduates of Spelman Seminary completed their work in 1886.

In 1888 Spelman was incorporated and granted a charter from the state of Georgia. Two African Americans were members of the original board, and one was on the executive committee of five. In time, the school was increasingly separated from ABHMS as more and more financial resources were provided by philanthropic organizations.

In 1901 the first baccalaureate degrees were conferred upon two Spelman students who had completed the requirements by taking several college-level courses at Atlanta Baptist College. Spelman continued to grow, new buildings were built, and more lots were purchased. The new buildings led to a constant struggle to stay financially sound, and the board began to seek a source to establish a permanent endowment.

In 1924, after a science building was completed, Spelman was finally in a position to offer a full range of college-level courses. As a result, the name was changed to Spelman College. Sisters Chapel was completed in 1927, and Florence Read became the new president of Spelman. Read placed tremendous emphasis on the development of a strong liberal arts college and greatly increased the college's endowmentfrom $57,501 in 1928 to $3,612,740 by the time Read retired in 1953. The elementary school was finally abolished in 1928, as was the nurses training department. Cooperation with Morehouse College was expanded in 1928 and 1929. Three members of the faculty were jointly employed, other teachers were exchanged, courses on each campus were opened to juniors and seniors, and the summer school was in joint operation.

Because of constant financial pressures, in 1929 Spelman agreed to a contract of affiliation with Atlanta University and Morehouse College. This allowed them to pool their financial and administrative sources and thus eliminate redundant functions. Part of the agreement required Spelman to eliminate its high school, whose students and function were shifted to Atlanta University, although they were supported by all three affiliates.

Spelman became fully accredited in 1930 by the Association of American Colleges. The Great Depression led to a financial squeeze, but Spelman survived and maintained its standard of excellence. The 1940s saw further growth, both physically and scholastically.

In 1953 Spelman got its first African-American president with the appointment of Albert E. Manley. The contract of affiliation was expanded in 1957 to include other Atlanta area colleges, and the school became part of the Atlanta University Center.

Spelman students were very active in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. They participated in sit-ins at segregated public sites in Atlanta, and several were arrested. Two Spelman students were cofounders of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, and in 1960 Martin Luther King Jr. delivered the Founder's Day address. In 1961 a non-Western Studies program (in cooperation with Morehouse College) was initiated with the help of a grant from the Ford Foundation. In 1969 a Black Studies program was officially added to the curriculum.

In 1976 Dr. Donald Mitchell Stewart assumed the presidency amid protests from students and faculty, who demanded the appointment of a black woman to that post. That was not to take place until 1987, when Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole became the first such president of Spelman College. The following year, $20 million was donated by Bill and Camille Cosby, part of which went into a new building program. In 1992 Spelman had close to two thousand students, 97 percent of whom were African Americans. Cole announced her resignation in 1997.

Beverly Daniel Tatum was inaugurated as the college's ninth president in 2003. In 2004 Spelman partnered with South African University to explore ways of fostering sustainable development.

See also Bethune-Cookman College; Dillard University; Education in the United States; Fisk University; Howard University; Lincoln University; Morehouse College; Spelman College; Tuskegee University


Guy-Sheftall, Beverly, and Jo Moore Stewart. Spelman: A Centennial Celebration. Atlanta, Ga., 1981.

Read, Florence. The Story of Spelman College. Atlanta, Ga.: Author, 1961.

Roebuck, Julian B., and Komanduri S. Murty. The Place of Historically Black Colleges and Universities in American Higher Education. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 1993.

christine a. lunardini (1996)
Updated by publisher 2005

Cite this article
Pick a style below, and copy the text for your bibliography.

  • MLA
  • Chicago
  • APA

"Spelman College." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . 22 Apr. 2019 <>.

"Spelman College." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . (April 22, 2019).

"Spelman College." Encyclopedia of African-American Culture and History. . Retrieved April 22, 2019 from

Learn more about citation styles

Citation styles gives you the ability to cite reference entries and articles according to common styles from the Modern Language Association (MLA), The Chicago Manual of Style, and the American Psychological Association (APA).

Within the “Cite this article” tool, pick a style to see how all available information looks when formatted according to that style. Then, copy and paste the text into your bibliography or works cited list.

Because each style has its own formatting nuances that evolve over time and not all information is available for every reference entry or article, cannot guarantee each citation it generates. Therefore, it’s best to use citations as a starting point before checking the style against your school or publication’s requirements and the most-recent information available at these sites:

Modern Language Association

The Chicago Manual of Style

American Psychological Association

  • Most online reference entries and articles do not have page numbers. Therefore, that information is unavailable for most content. However, the date of retrieval is often important. Refer to each style’s convention regarding the best way to format page numbers and retrieval dates.
  • In addition to the MLA, Chicago, and APA styles, your school, university, publication, or institution may have its own requirements for citations. Therefore, be sure to refer to those guidelines when editing your bibliography or works cited list.