Before Spelman College in Atlanta became a global leader in educating women of African descent and arguably the nation’s most prestigious historically Black college and universitie, or HBCU, the school had a different name — the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary College.

Spelman, of course, did not become a college until 1924 after the name switch and has since played a critical role in shaping history’s finest Black women.

We wanted to know more about the students who applied to enroll in this particular HBCU in the 1800s, so we talked to Spelman’s archivist and gained valuable insight into the college’s courses offered at the time and the earliest student body in the country’s oldest higher education institution for Black women. 

Here’s a quick look at Spelman’s beginnings and the HBCU’s critical role in shaping some of the world’s most remarkable Black women.

Spelman’s Early Beginnings 

After former president Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, which freed enslaved people in areas in rebellion against the United States, Black Americans began to want one of the most important things to accomplish in life — seeking and gaining higher education.

Some of these people defied expectations and went to Spelman.

Spelman began in Friendship Baptist Church’s basement, founded and pastored by Rev Frank Quarles.

Quarles played a critical role in establishing the brother school of Spelman, Morehouse College, as well. 

The school opened on April 11, 1881. 

Back then, Spelman was considered a “Model School” to student-teachers.

“In Atlanta and other places across the South,” said Holly Smith, the college archivist at the Spelman’s Women’s Research and Resource Center, “various black communities sought to build schools and provide educational opportunities for youth and elders alike in the face of limited resources, white supremacy, and numerous obstacles.”

“I believe what attracted many students was the idea of an institution dedicated to Black women, focusing on education and community work,” Smith told us in an email. 

Spelman’s Early Exemplars

Of the school’s guiding principle, Smith believes there’s no doubt that religious instruction and its primary purpose helped to shape Spelman’s students in its early beginnings. 

The early catalogs are a critical archival resource, as they include criteria for students, she pointed out via email.

“The 1882-1883 Catalogue states, “Applicants for admission must be at least fourteen years of age and must give satisfactory testimonials of good moral character,” said Smith. 

She continued, “Pupils should aim to be present the first day of school, that they may be classified and thus lose no time.”

“Physical, social, moral and religious culture will occupy an important place in the general system pursued,” said Smith. 

“Religious and moral instruction is the foundation of all our teaching. We believe if this is neglected, all else is in vain. The motto of the school is our whole school for Christ.”

Our Whole School for Christ

Smith added that the already noted motto means “To train the intellect, to store the mind with practical knowledge, to induce habits of industry and a desire for general information, to inspire a love for the true and the beautiful, to prepare the pupils for practical duties of life, are the objects earnestly sought to be accomplished.” 

Education’s moral components were also necessary then, and presently, we discovered: Smith shed light on Spelman’s connections to black churches and the American Baptist Home Mission Society, and the Women’s Baptist Auxiliary Home Society (an auxiliary of the ABHMS founded by Sophia Packard and Harriet Giles). 

“Many of the students became teachers, nurses, and serviced in diverse communities across the country and internationally, spreading Spelman’s reputation.”

Holly Smith

She also gave us some insight into Spelman’s early beginnings, saying, “It is noted that the first class of students consisted of ten women and one girl – eleven students in all.”

“The early catalogs listed the [students’ names] and their hometowns,” said Smith. Several of them “came from Atlanta, with others coming from around Georgia.” 

She is referring to Spelman’s earliest student body, expressing that “It is profound to think of Spelman educating women of diverse ages and various backgrounds from its earliest days.” 

“Many of the students became teachers, nurses, and serviced in diverse communities across the country and internationally, spreading Spelman’s reputation,” said Smith. 

“They were early exemplars of Spelman.”

Spelman’s Early Curriculum 

Spelman’s organization in the 1800s isn’t what we know the elite Black college to be today. 

According to Smith, the early curriculum does not look like what the school would associate with a modern college. 

In so doing, the early years have un-dated grads, and later course curriculum included primary grade levels. These included first grade, second grade, etc. 

“In thinking back to the curriculum,” said Smith, “the faculty and staff balanced different educational needs and personal development for the early students with support from the surrounding African American students.” 

As we looked in the first-course catalog from 1881, there were two study courses — the regular department and the academic department. 

“The study’s normal department course was three years and consisted of reading, writing, arithmetic, and history,” said Smith. 

She added that “The students’ academic course, also three years, included algebra, physiology, Latin, botany, and chemistry.”

Additionally, during Spelman’s first term (11 April 1881-15 July 1881), there were 80 students; the following time (3 October 1881-1 June 1882) increased to 173. 

Spelman Today

Today, Spelman boasts a student body with more than 2,100 students from 43 states and ten foreign countries and is consistently ranked among the nation’s best HBCUs.

Specific characteristics about the school, like location, prestige, and alumni giving, attract some of the best and brightest undergraduates in the country to Spelman’s doors on-campus. 

It’s safe to say that the students who attended Spelman in its humble beginnings and other Black colleges in the country at the time were probably among the first to declare these words:

“There is nothing like the Black college experience.”