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Fueled by One Woman’s Passion and a Pocketful of Change

It was a Sunday in June 1882 at a Baptist church in Cleveland, Ohio.

A visionary educator, Sophia B. Packard, shared her dreams of educating Black girls and women at a school she’d begun a year earlier, modestly, with 11 students in a church basement.

In the audience as she spoke sat John D. Rockefeller and his wife Laura Spelman Rockefeller.

They were so moved that Rockefeller emptied all the money in his pocket onto the collection plate.

He also immediately pledged $250 toward purchasing the land where the college now stands in Atlanta, Georgia.

The next day Packard and her colleague Harriet E. Giles spent the afternoon at the Rockefellers’ home, and a collaboration was born that would reach through generations.

Spelman College's first graduating class 1887
Spelman College's first graduating class 1887. (Photo courtesy of Spelman College)

School Renamed in Honor of Spelman’s Abolitionist Family

In 1884, Rockefeller gave the school additional support, and it was renamed in honor of his wife’s family, whose home in Ohio had served as a safehouse for runaway slaves, and who had for many years worked for the abolition of slavery and to gain equal rights for Black people.

Rockefeller went on to contribute to infrastructure expansions, including the construction of Rockefeller Hall, with offices, a chapel, and dormitory rooms, built in 1886, and Packard Hall, erected in 1888.

After The Rockefeller Foundation was founded in 1913, the relationship between Spelman College and the Foundation deepened further. Throughout his lifetime, Rockefeller maintained an active and personal interest in the institution’s development and helped fund the construction of buildings for classes, dorms, the president’s home, and more.

“You can’t glance around the campus without seeing something that is evidence of our long bond,” said Susan Beckett-Mitchell, Spelman’s Director of Foundation Relations. “We would not exist without this relationship.”

In partnership, the institutions have launched intensive study programs for talented high school students, provided professional development and research opportunities to Spelman faculty, and supported the arts and humanities, with the most recent grant coming in 2019. And the couple’s great granddaughter, Laura Rockefeller Chasin, served on the school’s Board of Trustees from 1965 to 1990.

“That long, winding history gives me the confidence to say that this historic ceremony is not the last time our paths will cross,” the Foundation’s President, Dr. Rajiv J. Shah, said this April during the inauguration of Spelman’s 11th president, Dr. Helene Gayle.

Top HBCU in the Country

Today, Spelman College, with about 2,200 students, is the No. 1 historically Black college and university (HBCU) in the country, a spot it has held for 16 years straight, according to the 2022 U.S. News & World Report “Best Colleges” rankings.

Its current graduation rate of 77 percent is the highest among all HBCUs and is well above the national graduation rate of 44 percent for African American students. “A lot of that can be attributed to our faculty,” said Beckett-Mitchell. You can’t just disappear at this school. People are making sure you are supported.”

With an acceptance rate of 51 percent, Spelman is among the most selective women’s college in the nation. Some 87 percent of students receive some form of financial aid. Twelve Spelman students have been named Truman Scholars and 33 Marshall Scholars. It has also been recognized by the National Science Foundation as the leading producer of Black women who go on to earn doctorates in the sciences.

“Education and equity are underpinning values for The Rockefeller Foundation, and we know educating those from underserved communities is essential to a more equitable future across the globe,” said Eileen O’Connor, Senior Vice President, Strategic Communications and Policy for The Foundation. “That’s why we’ve remained committed, throughout our entire 110-year history, to the work underway at Spelman.”

Raj Shah at Spelman College
Dr. Rajiv Shah speaking at the Inauguration at Spelman College of Helene D Gayle, MD, MPH. (Photo courtesy of Spelman College)
  • Rockefeller Hall at Spelman College(Photo Courtesy of Spelman College)

Scholar-Activists Will Help Shape the Future

The school emphasizes values as well as scholarship. “The George Floyd murder (on May 25, 2020) was traumatizing to individuals, and highlighted a choice to change the world,” said Dr. Tasha R. Inniss, the college’s Associate Provost for Research. “We prepare our students to be scholar-activists, to go out and make a better world.”

One of the biggest impacts of the ongoing relationship between Spelman College and The Rockefeller Foundation, as well as the college’s commitment to excellence, is “the increased number of applicants who, once accepted, chose to attend,” said. Jessie L. Brooks, Senior Vice President for Institutional Advancement.

“One challenge, in particular, is that we would like to be able to afford more scholarships to get students to the finish line” without being tied down to burdensome work/study schedules, Brooks said. “It used to be that we were students’ second, third, or fourth choice. Now we are their first. And we’d like to be need-blind.”