By Grace Austin

As a historically black college (HBCU), Spelman College has been an innovative learning institution since its founding in 1881. With a selective 2,100 students, Spelman is considered the premier HCBU for women in the United States. A private, liberal arts college, Spelman is located in Atlanta, Georgia, one of three Atlanta University Center schools, along with Clark Atlanta University and Morehouse College. With notable alumni including Alice Walker, author of The Color Purple, and the first African-American general, Marcelite J. Harris, Spelman has been a wellspring for female African-American leadership since its establishment more than 100 years ago.

“From our vantage point, we see ourselves as producing particular kinds of leaders. We are focused on activism leadership as opposed to a generic idea of producing women leaders,” said Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall, founding director of the Women’s Research and Resource Center and the Anna Julia Cooper Professor of Women’s Studies. “We are focused on developing students who see themselves as transformational leaders, not just leaders who get good jobs and earn big incomes.”

From its humble beginnings in the basement of Friendship Baptist Church to its current endowment of almost $300 million, Spelman has paralleled the progress of African Americans from Reconstruction to the twenty-first century. Named after a family of prominent anti-slavery activists, Spelman has ties to billionaire John D. Rockefeller, who pledged the school a $250 grant in 1882. Spelman also has a long commitment to Africa, which began in 1889 when student Nora Gordon left for missionary work in the Congo, and continues today through the Gordon-Zeto Center for Global Education, named in honor of missionary Gordon. The Center recently received a $17 million gift from an anonymous donor, some of it to be used for scholarships targeted at young women from South Africa.

“While we welcome students from all backgrounds, we recognize our historic mission has a particular appeal for young women from across the African diaspora. For the last two years we have participated in President Clinton’s initiative to bring Rwandan students to study in the U.S., and several Rwandan students are currently attending Spelman. We also have established relationships with a few South African universities, participating in student and faculty exchanges,” said Dr. Beverly Daniel Tatum, President of Spelman.

In February 2011, President Obama renewed a White House Initiative on Historically Black Colleges and Universities (HBCU). Obama’s efforts could not be more timely, as some HCBUs, most notably Bennett College and Fisk University, have faced financial difficulties and potential closings. Spelman has managed to retain its prestige while capturing substantial endowments; Comedian and activist Bill Cosby pledged $20 million in 1987, and NASA has awarded Spelman a multi-billion dollar grant. Alumnae participation is almost 40%, and alumnae gifts are only increasing.

“Even in this economic downturn, employers and graduate school representatives are recruiting heavily at Spelman, making the investment in a Spelman education a tremendous value for those who choose it. Preserving and strengthening our brand in higher education is central to our success, and we work hard at it. We have also worked hard at developing a strong alumnae base of support. Over the last ten years our annual participation rate of alumnae giving has grown, a critical factor for ensuring the long-term viability of our institution. And we have aggressively pursued our fundraising goals to expand our ability to provide financial support for those students in need,” said Tatum.

Spelman has remained fiscally stable and institutionally relevant primarily because of its history of female empowerment. Dr. Sophia Jones became the first black female faculty member in 1885. In 1944, a conference on higher education for African-American women was held. Today, the annual Spelman College Leadership and Women of Color Conference continues this legacy, an intergenerational conference that assembles experts to identify and dialogue with attendees on strategies and practices to enhance leadership skills. Another conference, the annual Toni Cade Bambara Activism Conference, held during Women’s History month, celebrates filmmaker, author, and activist Bambara, widely-recognized for her activity in the Black Arts movement and black feminism.

In 1981, the Spelman College Women’s Research and Resource Center was established. It is the first women’s research center at an HBCU and the first to offer a women’s studies major. Part of the Center’s mission has been the management of the Spelman College Archives, in which the Audre Lorde papers are stored, and the founding of the Digital Moving Image Salon, a partnership with Bennett College to strengthen the Women’s Studies program on both campuses. Launching an endowment campaign with a multi-million lead gift from the Ford Foundation has been essential to the Center’s future.

“The endowment campaign will be a huge plus for us, because what it means is that we can do all kinds of innovative programming, and we won’t have to depend on foundations to receive grants. We want to have summer institutes for faculty at HCBUs to learn better how to infuse issues of gender and sexuality,” said Guy-Sheftall. “We would like to attract women scholars from around the world to come and do residences at the Center. We want a place where feminist activist scholars would see Spelman as a place to do collaborative work.”

Diversity among Diversity

While Spelman’s student population is almost entirely made up of women of African descent, there is significant diversity within that population. There is ethnic diversity: African American, Afro‐Caribbean, Afro‐Hispanic, and African immigrants (with national variation within each of these categories); religious diversity: Christians, Muslims, and Baha’i are among the most common faith traditions represented; geographic diversity: regional as well as rural, urban, and suburban; and diversity in sexual orientation and in physical ability and learning styles.

“Diversity is not just within people of different races, but within a race itself,” said Senior Ashley Grisham, who majors in International Studies and has a minor in Chinese. “We have a lot of students from Africa themselves, as well as international students from Germany and India. A lot of people don’t know that, because when they think of an HBCU they think of all African-American students, but we do have students from all different backgrounds. And we have many students that even though they might identify as African American, they are mixed.”

Regionally Spelman is extremely diverse. A majority of students are out-of-state, with New York, California, Maryland, and Illinois most represented, while home-state of Georgia makes up 29% of the student population. Overall, 45 states are represented at Spelman.

Students from the Bahamas, Kenya, Rwanda, Jamaica, China and Ghana have the largest international populations at Spelman. Through the Gordon-Zeto Center for Global Education, Spelman offers students engagement with global cultures and prepares them for leadership roles in an increasingly interdependent global society. The Center focuses on growing the number of African students who study and graduate from Spelman, supports study abroad opportunities for students and faculty, and provides senior leadership for the College’s international education programs.

Spelman has attempted to reach out to the LGBT community through significant university projects and campus-wide events. Through the Women’s Center, Spelman convened a historic summit in April 2011 on climate issues around diversity, inclusion, gender, and sexuality at HCBUs, which was funded by the Arcus Foundation. The summit was unprecedented, the first of its kind to address these issues at historically black colleges, organized widely due to the wave of suicides of LGBT and LGBT-labeled individuals.

“That’s a project that we’ve been engaged in for four years. It began with the processing of the Audre Lorde papers. We worked on issues in the Atlanta University Center, and broadened that to include historically black colleges. In some ways it was our most ambitious project,” said Guy-Sheftall.

Spelman has attempted to not only acknowledge but embrace religious differences through the Sisters Chapel, dating to the ‘20s, and its WISDOM Center program, founded in 2001. Rev. Lisa Rhodes heads the Sisters Chapel and the Center. During her tenure, Rhodes has helped establish an interfaith council, which helped affirm diversity and present roundtable discussions/presentations, Diwali and Ramadan celebrations, and forums addressing Islamic stereotypes.

“The spiritual component of leadership development has been an important factor in education. When we started the WISDOM Center, we wanted to continue this development, and broaden the religious tradition of women of African descent. We’ve identified that although the majority [of students] are Christian, there are an increased number of Muslim students, Hindu faculty, occasionally Baha’i, Hebrew/Israelites, and Buddhists. We wanted to create a community that affirmed difference,” said Rhodes.

Past, Present, and Future

The future looks bright for Spelman College. While remembering the past is a major part of the Spelman experience, moving forward as a haven of learning and empowerment for African-American women is the central mission of the institution.

“I’ve been teaching at Spelman for 40 years. I went there as an undergraduate. I imagine Spelman sees itself as continuing to be the premier institution for women of African descent…who will go out into the world and be change agents,” said Guy-Sheftall.

Continues Grisham: “I think Spelman is going to continue to go global, continuing to spread Spelman success and uplifting the Spelman spirit around the world. I definitely see students engaged in not just philanthropy, but civil rights causes and social justices,” said Grisham. “The tradition of where Spelman started, to now a full-fledged academic institution and movement [is significant]. Spelman women come from all different walks of life, but once you’re admitted, you don’t just join a college, you join a family and community where everyone has equal access to rights and success.”

Spelbots Put a Spell on the Competition
Robotics is not a traditionally female field. But don’t let the Spelman robotics team, the Spelbots, tell you otherwise. The Spelbots have traveled across the country and internationally to compete their self-made robots and share their story, all while promoting STEM to underrepresented minorities and girls. The Spelbots are a testament to the ability of young women, particularly women of color, to be leaders in science, technology, and math.

“They have had to be trailblazers. Through the years, they’ve faced subtle and not so subtle sexism and racism being the only women and usually the only African Americans at competitions. When we got an award in Japan, they didn’t want to give us an award publicly. I told the students, ‘Let this be a teaching moment, you’re trailblazers. People don’t think that women or African-American women in particular can do things in science, and you have to show them that you can,’” said Dr. Andrew B. Williams, coach and founder of the Spelbots.

The Spelbots were formed by Williams in the fall of 2004 when he came to Spelman after reading The Purpose Driven Life. In 2005, the Spelbots became the first all-women, African-American team to compete in the RoboCup four-legged robot soccer competition, which is considered the Olympics of robotics and artificial intelligence. Dr. Williams also founded the ARTSI Alliance, a robotics alliance consisting of thirteen HBCUs and seven research institutions, to increase the number of African-American students studying robotics and computer science by offering research and education projects centered on robotics and healthcare, the arts, and entrepreneurship.

The Spelbots, though sponsored by Boeing and GM, has secured a more than half-million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation to fund and expand STEM outreach. The grant will allow the Spelbots to expand research and improve their robotic technology, let them travel without the help of extensive fundraising, as well as change stereotypes about women and women of color in technology.

“There’s still a real lack of role models for African-American ladies. Seeing women do STEM is relevant and combats the “nerd” stereotype,” said Williams. “Women and African Americans have just as much potential as everyone else.”