Image Source: Spelman College Archives. Used with permission.

Early Spelman Programs and Graduates:
Standouts Writing for the Spelman Messenger

overview by Sarah Robbins


When Spelman first opened, very few young black women in the south had been given the opportunity for learning beyond the elementary school level. Therefore, the original curriculum for Spelman included subjects that are now studied in America's secondary schools. For the first generation of Spelman students, a high school diploma was a great accomplishment indeed-one that typically prepared them for school teaching, motherhood, and/or active leadership in community service.

A number of the first generation of Spelman students attended the high school program during the academic year, then returned to homes in rural areas throughout the south to teach young children. Besides carrying their learning back to their hometowns, these summer schoolteachers were also earning money that would help pay their tuition the next fall. In this way, a young woman's local community could both support her education and gain from it.

The Spelman Messenger of November 1888 describes just such a process of educational exchange in an article entitled "Real Missionary Work," signed A.M.D. The author (probably a Spelman instructor) cites this example of a student going home to summer teaching, then returning again to Spelman after struggling to raise funds for tuition:

Last year one of our girls from another state taught in a little log hut minus a floor and part of the roof. One small opening called a window and numerous large cracks admitted light, plenty of air, and sometimes water, to the little folks seated on the rough benches. The teacher walked three miles to school every morning not on a good road, but in a narrow foot path leading through tall, wet grass.
Feeling that she needed better preparation for teaching, she has worked very hard, in the fields, and even cutting down trees, that she might get money to come here. She is here, and, with many others, is striving to be and to do all that lies in the power of an intelligent, consecrated, Christian woman (3).

An industrial education program, meanwhile, was soon being developed to train Spelman women for such careers as nursing and printing. Individual northern philanthropists and organizations like the Slater Fund were influential in promoting vocational education as a major goal for many institutions serving blacks in the south-- including Spelman. (The Spelman Messenger, the institution's main publication, was initially a project of the Industrial Education program.) Gradually, a college-level curriculum was added, with the first graduates of that program completing their work just before the dawn of the twentieth century.

Spelman's turn-of-the-century curricular program included-and continued to value-both vocational and liberal arts education programs. Maintaining this blend during the first decades may have cushioned Spelman, at least to some extent, from the battle over the shape of African Americans' education that was fought by proponents of vocational education (like Booker T. Washington) versus champions of liberal arts study (like W. E. B. DuBois).

Below, we profile several of the early graduates who published articles in the Spelman Messenger while still enrolled as students. Their writing reflects the high level of commitment these women all made to education-for themselves and for others of their race. With Spelman's founding having been guided by leaders who promoted religion's place in education, it's understandable that these women's writings and their biographies also share a strong moral tone and content.

(click the author's name below to read associated Messenger writings)

Psyche S. Bailey, class of 1891

Originally from Columbus, Georgia, Psyche S. Bailey enrolled in Spelman's high-school level course. After graduation, she moved to Cleveland, Ohio, and became a schoolteacher. (In the first decades after the Civil War, many schoolteachers taught without going on to college-level courses.)
Psyche married John W. McRae of Ohio. They had one daughter, Bethena, who also attended Spelman. Bethana died, though, in 1914, and Mr. McRae passed away the very next year. Psyche moved back to Atlanta after the loss of her immediate family, and she stayed connected to Spelman through community service activities.

Nora A. Gordon, class of 1888

Born in Columbus, Georgia, in August of 1866, Nora Gordon was among the initial generation of young African American women educated after slavery ended.
She was also the first in a line of Spelman graduates who traveled to Africa to work as missionaries. Just a year after graduating, Nora journeyed to Palabala on the Congo River. She had been commissioned by the Woman's Baptist Foreign Mission Society of the West to work alongside Clara Howard, another Spelman graduate. In 1891, Nora moved to the mission station at Lukungu.
In 1895, Nora married a minister (whose last name was also Gordon but who was not a relative). They worked together for several years as missionaries. When Nora became very ill, she returned to the United States. Her illness had progressed too far for successful treatment, however. She died in Spelman's Mac Vicar hospital in 1901.


Carrie Walls, class of 1888

Like many students, Carrie Walls came to Spelman from Columbus, Georgia. (Columbus had established a strong tradition of education for its black population in the early years of Reconstruction, when the New England Freedmen's Aid Society established a school there that lasted until 1876.) Carrie graduated with the highest honors in her class from the high school-level program at Spelman in 1888.
In the very next year, Carrie taught school in Belton, South Carolina. She married another educator, Mark H. Gassaway, and they both taught from 1890 until 1919 at the Greeley Institute in Anderson, South Carolina. In 1919, the Gassaways moved to Cleveland, where Carrie's husband began a career in manufacturing.
Carrie remained active in the field of education. She took summer courses at the Cheyney Institute in Pennsylvania one year and at Western Reserve another. She taught handicrafts at a settlement house in Cleveland.
Meanwhile, the Gassaways had seven children. Two of their sons attended Morehouse in Atlanta. Carrie herself maintained strong ties with Spelman, making regular donations. She especially enjoyed receiving the annual presidential letter that provided an update to alumnae. In the 1934, she wrote to then-president Florence Read: "Please keep sending me the letters [about events there] as long as I live."
Carrie died in Cleveland in December of 1935.


Claudia T. White, class of 1897

Claudia White's father was William Jefferson White, the founder of Morehouse College. Perhaps unsurprisingly given her family heritage, Claudia was one of the first two women to earn a college degree from Spelman.
Claudia taught German and Latin at Morehouse before marrying a professor of music from the men's college in 1913. She then retired from paid teaching, but remained very active in the alumnae association of Spelman, including serving as an advisor to students who were enrolled in the growing college-level program. Claudia was also a leader in numerous Atlanta community organizations, including the Neighborhood Union Woman's Club.
Claudia's daughter Josephine also attended Spelman, graduating from the high school in 1928 and the college in 1933.


Click Here for additional notes on the development of this material


Creating a New Context for Studying African Americans' Post-Civil War Education
by Sarah Robbins

A Timeline of Spelman College's Early History
by Ed Hullender

Father Quarles and Aunt Ruth: Leaders for Spelman and All of Georgia
by Deborah Mitchell

Reflections on Writing (from) an Oral History
by Deborah Mitchell

Doing Archival Research
by Ed Hullender


by the "Educating for Citizenship" Team



Content Design/Management: Traci Blanchard and Marty Lamers


Home | Curricular Program | Thematic Content
Classroom Resources | Community Projects | Who We Are


© 2000-2001KCAC
No materials on this website should be copied or distributed
(except for classroom use) without written permissions from KCAC.
Questions? Comments? Contact KSU webmaster Jim Cope.


a project funded in part by the National Endowment for the Humanities