Spelman College was founded on April 11, 1881 by two teachers in the basement of Friendship Baptist Church in Atlanta, GA. After money is gifted from John D. Rockefeller, the seminary for teachers is moved to its current grounds. The all-women’s school is named after Laura Spelman Rockefeller, the daughter of anti-slavery activists. In 1888, Henry L. Morehouse, the namesake of Spelman’s “brother” school across the street, was named the first president of the Board of Trustees. The schools would merge several academic programs in 1929.
In 1891, Harriet Giles, one of the founders of Spelman, became president. It wasn’t until 1987 that Dr. Johnnetta B. Cole became the college’s first black woman president. Dr. Cole was not only a phenomenal speaker and anthropologist, but she raised one of the highest endowments the school had ever received; $113.8 million, including $20 million from Bill and Camille Cosby. Dr. Cole resigned as president in 1996 and the Dr. Johnnetta Besch Cole Living and Learning Center II was dedicated in 2005.
In 1997, Audrey Forbes Manley (class of ’55) became the first alumna elected president of the college.
Spelman women, as with many HBCU students, held a significant presence in the civil rights movement. In 1960, students were arrested for protest during a sit-in in downtown Atlanta. Among those activists were then students Marian Wright Edelman and Pulitzer prize winning author Alice Walker.