Born on January 3, 1824, in New Salem, Massachusetts, Sophia B. Packard worked as a teacher and pastor's assistant. Along with Harriet Giles, she relocated to Atlanta and, with aid from the Women's American Baptist Home Mission Society and John D. Rockefeller, founded a school for African-American women that would become known as Spelman College. Packard died in Washington, D.C., on June 21, 1891.
Sophia B. Packard was born on January 3, 1824, in New Salem, Massachusetts. Beginning at the age of 14, she alternated between periods of teaching and studying at local rural schools. She graduated from the Female Seminary in Charlestown, Massachusetts, in 1850.
Teacher and Missionary
In 1855, Packard became a preceptor and teacher at the New Salem Academy, where she met her longtime companion, Harriet E. Giles. They opened the Rollstone School in Fitchburg, Massachusetts, in March 1859, but were forced to close its doors after a few months. Packard went on to teach at the Connecticut Literary Institution in Suffield until 1864, and from 1864 to 1867 she was co-principal of the Oread Collegiate Institute in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Taking a leave from education, Packard secured a management position with the Empire Insurance Co. in Boston. In 1870, she took an unusual position for a woman by becoming a pastor's assistant under the Reverend George C. Lorimer of the Shawmut Avenue Baptist Church and later of the Tremont Temple.
In 1877, Packard and Giles were among the organizers of the Woman's American Baptist Home Mission Society, a group devoted to spreading the gospel of Christianity and providing education to Native American and African-American communities. Packard was elected its first treasurer, and then became corresponding secretary the following year.
In 1880, Packard and Giles undertook a tour of the South to assess living conditions for African Americans. Noticing a scarcity of educational opportunities, they decided to open a school for black women and girls.
With help from the Woman's Society, Packard and Giles moved to Atlanta, Georgia, and on April 11, 1881, they launched the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary in the basement of the Friendship Baptist church. In addition to teaching, the two women led prayer meetings, conducted Sunday school and administered sewing classes.
The American Baptist Home Mission Society provided a down payment for a new home in 1882, and in 1883 the school moved to its current location. In the meantime, Packard and Giles met oil tycoon John D. Rockefeller, who was impressed with the women's efforts. He donated $5,000 to pay off the remainder of the school's debt, and in 1884 it was renamed Spelman Seminary in honor of Rockefeller's wife and in-laws.
The school continued to expand its student body and physical presence. Rockefeller Hall, consisting of offices, a chapel and dormitory rooms, was built in 1886, and the first Spelman class graduated in 1887. A charter granted by the state of Georgia in 1888 allowed Spelman to be incorporated under a board of trustees, which officially named Packard the school's first president.
She remained in that role until her death in Washington, D.C., on June 21, 1891, her burgeoning school on its way to becoming an acclaimed four-year liberal arts institution named Spelman College. Following Packard's death, Giles assumed the school's presidency (until her death in 1909).
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