Packard, Sophia B. (1824–1891)

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Packard, Sophia B. (1824–1891)

American educator and founder of Spelman College. Born on January 3, 1824, in New Salem, Massachusetts; died on June 21, 1891, in Washington, D.C.; daughter of Winslow Packard (a farmer) and Rachel (Freeman) Packard; attended the local district school; attended New Salem Academy in 1845 for at least a term; received a diploma from the Charlestown (Massachusetts) Female Seminary, 1850; never married; lifelong companion of Harriet E. Giles; no children.

Taught for several years in Massachusetts schools; became preceptress and a teacher in the New Salem (Massachusetts) Academy (1855); with her lifelong companion, Harriet E. Giles, taught at the Connecticut Literary Institution, Suffield, Connecticut (1859–64); was co-principal of the Oread Collegiate Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts (1864–67); became pastor's assistant under the Rev. George C. Lorimer (1870); presided over organizing meeting of the Woman's American Baptist Home Mission Society, and played active role in organization (1877); toured South to determine what type of aid should be given to African-American population (1880); moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and with Giles opened the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary (1881); Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary relocated and was renamed Spelman Seminary, with a hall erected and named after Packard (1888); became treasurer of the board of trustees and president of Spelman Seminary (1888).

Sophia B. Packard was born on January 3, 1824, in New Salem, Massachusetts, the fifth child of Winslow Packard, a farmer, and Rachel Freeman Packard . She attended district school and at the age of 14 began teaching in rural schools. Thereafter, she alternated years between teaching and studying. In 1845, she attended New Salem Academy for a brief time, and in 1850 received a diploma from the Charlestown (Massachusetts) Female Seminary, where she was an assistant teacher for one year. She went on to teach in Cape Cod schools for four years, and in 1855 became preceptress and a teacher in the New Salem Academy. It was there that she met Harriet E. Giles , who became her lifelong friend and companion. She remained at the Academy for one year and then moved to Orange, Massachusetts, where both she and Giles taught for three years.

Packard and Giles ran a school of their own in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, for a brief time, and then in 1859 accepted positions at the Connecticut Literary Institution in Suffield, Connecticut. They remained there until Packard became co-principal of the Oread Collegiate Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts, in 1864. While there, she carried out administrative duties in addition to teaching classes in metaphysics and literature. In 1866, Dr. John Shepardson, her co-principal, resigned. Packard had a tense relationship with Shepardson's successor, and the next year both she and Giles left the school and moved to Boston. After being employed at an insurance company for a time, in 1870 Packard became a pastor's assistant. She held this position, which was usually granted only to men and involved visiting the sick, conducting women's prayer meetings, and teaching Sunday school, under Reverend George C. Lorimer at the Shawmut Avenue Baptist Church and later at the Tremont Temple.

In 1877, Packard presided over the organizing meeting of the Woman's American Baptist Home Mission Society (WABHMS, a subsidiary of the American Baptist Home Mission Society), which was concerned with the plight of freed slaves in the South. She served as treasurer and corresponding secretary and sat on virtually every committee the group had. In February 1880, she traveled in the South to determine what form of assistance the African-American population most needed, and decided to open a school for African-American girls and women in Georgia. The WABHMS was not keen on the idea, but she persuaded them to lend support and moved to Atlanta with Giles in April 1881. They opened the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary in a church basement; soon the school's enrollment increased from 11 to 80, and by the next year, despite several months during which the WABHMS withdrew all financial support, it had reached 150. In 1882, the American Baptist Home Mission Society made a down payment on a permanent site for the school, and in 1883 the school moved to its new home. Wealthy oil magnate John D. Rockefeller, who heard Packard speak on the school's behalf in Cleveland, Ohio, was so impressed by her and her cause that in 1884 he paid the balance owing on the new property. The school's name was changed to Spelman Seminary, in honor of his wife Laura Spelman Rockefeller and her parents, who had strongly supported abolition. Rockefeller Hall was built in 1886, and Packard Hall was erected in 1888. That year a state charter was granted to the school, and Packard became the school's president and treasurer of the board of trustees. She continued to hold these posts until her death on June 21, 1891, at which time 464 students were attending Spelman Seminary; Harriet E. Giles succeeded Packard as president. In 1924, Spelman Seminary became Spelman College, and five years later it was affiliated with Atlanta University. At the beginning of the 21st century, it remains one of the top historically black liberal arts colleges for women in America.


James, Edward T., ed. Notable American Women, 1607–1950. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1971.

McHenry, Robert, ed. Famous American Women. NY: Dover, 1980.

Jo Anne Anne , freelance writer, Brookfield, Vermont