The first students — 11 in all — were mostly former slaves who gathered in the basement of a Baptist church, determined to learn how to read the Bible and to write.
Their teachers, two white missionaries from Massachusetts, had been sent to the South to study the living conditions of freedmen three years before.
Taken aback by the lack of educational opportunities for black women, they raised $100 from a Massachusetts church and opened the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary on April 11, 1881 — laying the foundation for what would become Spelman College.
What began 125 years ago with just a handful of eager students has morphed into one of the most respected women’s colleges in the country.
Tucked onto 32 acres in the midst of the Atlanta University Center, just west of downtown, Spelman has one of the largest endowments of any historically black college in the country. Alumnae giving is at an all-time high, and the college is in the middle of a massive fund-raising campaign. Spelman will soon break ground on an additional residence hall and now receives more than 4,500 applications for a little more than 500 freshman slots each year, including many people with perfect GED and ACT scores . Sixty-four percent of Spelman women go on to graduate school.
Spelman graduates, said Michael Lomax, director of the United Negro College Fund, “are women who are at the top of their game, who are in charge and doing extraordinary things.”
Yet, the college still struggles to compete for top students. Of those who are accepted, many are wooed away by predominantly white institutions that can offer big financial incentives, Spelman President Beverly Tatum said.
“They simply have more resources,” Tatum said. “They can offer better packages to black students.”
Tatum said there are two Spelman myths: first, that the school is wealthy, and second, that its students are.
In reality, more than 80 percent of students qualify for financial aid, she said. With an annual total cost of about $27,000 and scholarship money scarce, many students have trouble finding the resources to attend Spelman. Many Spelman students come from single-parent homes, and the majority of students have a family contribution of just $2,500 a year to the cost of their college education.
Crystal Cole, a senior from Texas, said she fell in love with Spelman on a visit to Sisters Chapel, the intimate brick sanctuary at the center of campus. While she said she knew studying there would be a financial struggle, she and her mom, both in tears, decided then and there that they’d find a way to make it work.
“I felt the sisterhood of Spelman,” Cole said. “I knew I wanted to be here.”
Tatum said offering better financial aid is a top priority. On Monday, the college will celebrate its anniversary at the Georgia Aquarium and make several announcements about scholarship plans, she said.
“We need to focus on students who don’t have the financial means to come here,” Tatum said.
While the school’s endowment lags behind the schools with which it competes for students, Spelman, unlike many other historically black colleges, has always enjoyed financial stability.
The college got its first major donation from wealthy industrialist John D. Rockefeller, who met the school’s founders, Sophia Packard and Harriet Giles, at a church conference in Ohio. Rockefeller famously asked the women if they meant “to stick.” If they did, he told them, they would hear from him again.
Encouraged, Packard and Giles moved the school from the church basement to a nine-acre site used as Army barracks during the Civil War. Rockefeller visited the newly relocated school and settled the debt on the property. In 1884, the school changed its name to the Spelman Seminary to honor the parents of Rockefeller’s wife, Laura Spelman Rockefeller.
In 1924, the school became Spelman College, and five years later, it joined forces with its neighbors Morehouse College and Atlanta University to form the Atlanta University Center.
The liberal arts college has always enjoyed a special relationship with Morehouse. Students take classes at both campuses, and “Spelhouse” marriages — between a Spelman woman and a Morehouse man — are common.
Lomax, a Morehouse graduate, said he has fond memories of Spelman’s “idyllic, neat and scrubbed little campus” and its “beautiful and accomplished young women.”
Spelman women become leaders who make a difference in the world, Tatum said. Among its alumnae are author Alice Walker and Grammy Award winner Bernice Johnson Reagon.
Spelman’s 125th anniversary marks Tatum’s fourth year on campus. She is the ninth president and the third black woman to hold the position. A petite woman with a big smile, she can rattle off Spelman statistics and stories of student successes in rapid-fire motion.
A former interim president at Mount Holyoke, Tatum took the reins as president from President Audrey Forbes Manley, whose husband also had served as a Spelman president.
While Manley’s five years at the college were marked with fund-raising success, many in the Spelman sphere point to the tenure of Johnnetta Cole, the college’s first black woman president, as the most influential in Spelman’s history.
Cole, who led the college from 1987 to 1997, is credited with making admissions more competitive, broadening programs and heightening the school’s national reputation.
During her decade at the helm, she brought in high-profile donors such as Bill and Camille Cosby, who funded a $20 million academic center and helped increase Spelman’s endowment from $40 million to $143 million.
Today, Spelman’s endowment stands at $258 million.
Tatum said the college would like to build a new fine arts center in the next five to 10 years and increase its yield — the number of students who accept Spelman’s offer of admission.
She believes Spelman’s size, now about 2,100 students, is just right.
In recent weeks, Tatum has hosted a series of dinners at her home on campus for seniors, an effort to get to know them before they go out into the world.
“She’s been here as long as we have,” said senior Keisha Wilkerson, who was one of a dozen or so gathered at Tatum’s tulip-lined Reynolds Cottage on a recent evening. “She’s our classmate.”
At the dinner, co-hosted by Tatum’s husband, Travis, a former professor, seniors got a more personal view of their president. She is a vegetarian, she told them, and plans a hiking trip to Nova Scotia this summer.
The students swapped stories about why they had chosen Spelman and where they’d like to see their alma mater go in the next 25 years.
Ashley Lee, a senior from Rome, credits Spelman sisterhood with giving her the confidence and maturity to go out and make a difference in the world.
Lee said she’s looking forward to Founders Day on Tuesday, when she and her classmates don their white dresses and sing the college hymn, a hallowed Spelman tradition.
“I know I won’t be able to keep from crying,” Lee said. “I’ll be thinking about what Spelman has meant to me.”