History of Spelman College in Atlanta: A Private College for Women


Spelman College is a private, historically black liberal arts college for women located in Atlanta, Georgia. The college is ranked among the top 50 four-year colleges and universities for producing Fulbright Scholars, and was ranked the second largest producer of African American college graduates who attend medical school.

Sophia B. Packard and Harriet E. Giles . . . two friends who were commissioned in 1879 by the Woman’s American Baptist Home Mission Society to study the living conditions “among the freedmen of the South” opened the school on April 11, 1881. They were so appalled by the lack of educational opportunity for Black women, the missionaries were determined to effect change. Their first eleven pupils, ten women and one girl, were mostly ex-enslaved, determined to learn to read the Bible and write.

When First Lady Michelle Obama spoke to the 2011 graduating class at Spelman, she basically told them to remember those 11 females when people try to tear them down … remember that their struggle was even greater and their burdens were even heavier to bear.

Spelman was originally named the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary. In 1884, its name was changed to Spelman Seminary in honor of Laura Spelman, the wife of John Rockefeller, who helped fund the school. Spelman Seminary became Spelman College in 1924, when it became the first historically black female institution of higher education to receive its collegiate charter. Spelman holds the distinction of being America’s oldest historically black college for women.

In 1987, Drs. William and Camille Cosby gave Spelman College a $20 million gift to construct a 69,000 square foot facility that would provide an intellectual nucleus for faculty in the humanities and women’s studies. Dedicated in 1996 as The Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby Academic Center, this facility houses the Spelman College Museum of Fine Art and a state-of-the-art College Archives.

This gift, the largest from an African American to a historically Black college, also established the William and Camille Cosby Endowed Professorship Program. Endowed at $4 million, this program supports professorships in the fine arts, humanities and the social sciences. It is a multidisciplinary initiative designed to enhance the intellectual, cultural and creative life of Spelman College and its surrounding community.

The Spelman campus consists of 26 buildings on 39 acres in Atlanta, Georgia. It has over 2,100 students and a student to faculty ratio of 12:1. Spelman is accredited to award baccalaureate degrees by the Commission on Colleges of the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools. Spelman is a member of the Coalition of Women’s Colleges, the National Association of Schools of Music, the National Council for Accreditation of Teacher Education, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools, and the National Association for College Admissions Counseling.

Spelman College is part of the Atlanta University Center, which is the largest consortium of black colleges and universities in the world. Its partner institutions in the group are Clark Atlanta University, the Interdenominational Theological Center, Morehouse College, and the Morehouse School of Medicine. Students from these campuses often participate in joint classes and social events. Spelman College offers organized and informal activities in over 80 student organizations including choral groups, music ensembles, dance groups, drama/theater groups, a jazz band, varsity and intramural sports, and student government.

Spelman offers a Bachelor of Arts degree in the following majors: Art, Child Development, Comparative Women’s Studies, Drama, Economics, English, French and Spanish, History, Human Services, International Studies, Mathematics, Music, Philosophy, Political Science, Psychology, Religion, Sociology and Anthropology. Spelman also offers a Bachelor of Science degree in the following majors: Biochemistry, Biology, Chemistry, Computer and Information Sciences, Engineering/Dual Degree, Environmental Science, Mathematics, and Physics.

A few famous people who attended Spelman include:

  • Keshia Knight Pulliam

Keshia Knight Pulliam graduated from Spelman College in 2001. Pulliam is an actress who is best known for playing Rudy, the youngest daughter on “The Cosby Show.” She successfully made the transition into an adult actress.

  • Marcelite J. Harris

Marcelite J. Harris graduated from Spelman College in 1964. Harris achieved what at one time was considered to be the unthinkable when she became the very first female African American to rise to the level of general in the United States Air Force.

  • Rolanda Watts

Rolanda Watts graduated Spelman College in 1980. After gaining work as a TV reporter, she briefly hosted her own Oprah-like talk show. She has also been an actress on such shows as “JAG” and “The West Wing” as well as the soap operas “The Bold and the Beautiful” and “Days of Our Lives.”

  • Marian Wright Edelman

Marian Wright Edelman graduated from Spelman College in 1960. Edelman is a well-known activist who has taken on the role of fighting for the rights of children. She was the first African American ever admitted to the Mississippi Bar, and in 1973 she founded the Children’s Defense Fund.

The daughters of Bill Cosby, Henry Louis Gates, Gerald Levert, Dr. King, and Sidney Poitier have also attended Spelman.

Spelman College admits qualified student candidates regardless of race, color, national or ethnic origin, or physical challenge.

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