Early Life & Career
Laura Celestia Spelman was born on September 9, 1839, in Wadsworth, Ohio. She was nicknamed “Cettie.” Her father, Harvey Buell Spelman, was a Puritan and an abolitionist who contributed to the establishment of the Congregational Church. He was also a member of the state legislature and was active in the ‘Underground Railroad’ business. Spelman's mother, Lucy Henry, was a ‘Yankee’ who had moved to Ohio from Massachusetts. Spelman had an elder adopted sister named Lucy Maria "Lute" Spelman.
Spelman and her family shifted to Akron and then settled in Cleveland, where her father's dry-goods business flourished. Like her parents, Spelman, too, was deeply religious. She was an abolitionist who was devoted to church services and had a strong sense of propriety. She also abstained from alcohol throughout her life.
Her graduation speech at 'Cleveland's Central High School,' titled “I Can Paddle My Own Canoe,” expressed that she believed in equal rights for women.
Both Spelman and her sister, Lucy, aspired to become teachers. In 1857, they attended the women's college named 'Oread Institute' (which closed in 1934) in Worcester, Massachusetts.
Two years later, they returned to Cleveland, where Spelman tried to start music classes but failed. Spelman worked as a substitute teacher for a few months and then earned a permanent teaching job at the 'Hudson Street School' in 1860.
Spelman devoted time to the Church and practiced the piano simultaneously. By 1862, she became an assistant principal.
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Life with Rockefeller
Back in Cleveland, Spelman met her future husband, John Davison Rockefeller, who founded the 'Standard Oil Company Inc.' in 1870. They attended accounting classes together and were in the same high school.
They got married on September 8, 1864, and had their honeymoon at the Niagara Falls, Canada, and in New England. The newly wedded couple then returned to Cleveland and bought a house next to that of Rockefeller’s parents.
Spelman and Rockefeller had five children: Elizabeth ("Bessie") Rockefeller (born on August 23, 1866), Alice Rockefeller (born on July 14, 1869), Alta Rockefeller (born on April 12, 1871), Edith Rockefeller (born on August 31, 1872), and John D. Rockefeller Jr. (born on January 29, 1874).
Spelman and her husband were active in the Church. She became a Baptist like her husband and joined Rockefeller's congregation, the ‘Northern Baptists.’ Soon, Rockefeller began devoting much of his time to expand his business, and Spelman began spending most of her time either with her children or working for the church.
The Rockefeller couple raised their children with stern discipline and few luxuries, even though they were wealthy. They lived in a mansion and owned a grand country estate. However, Spelman taught her children how to share by making her elder children share their clothes with the younger ones.
Spelman's youngest child, John Jr., attended several schools, while his daughters were homeschooled. Bessie later graduated from 'Vassar College.' John Jr. graduated from 'Brown University.'
All the Rockefeller children had become financially independent when they were still quite young. They earned their allowances by doing chores. They were given individual plots in the family vegetable garden and pulled out weeds from the lawn. Spelman also read the ‘Bible’ to them and passed on the same religious values that she had received from her parents. The children also practiced music.
She encouraged her children to donate to the Church from their earnings. They eventually joined a temperance society and signed pledges of total abstinence.
In 1868, Spelman and Rockefeller moved to a large house on Euclid Avenue, which is also known as ''Millionaire's Row.'' Five years later, he bought a suburban property with a view of Lake Erie and called it 'Forest Hill.'
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Spelman lost her father in 1881. Following this, her mother started living with the Rockefellers.
Rockefeller often made business trips to New York and communicated with Spelman through letters. She eventually left Cleveland with the children to join her husband in October and remained with him through spring. In 1884, they bought a residential property at 4 West 54th Street in Manhattan.
Spelman and her husband's fourth home was situated in Pocantico Hills, New York, north of Manhattan. It burned down in 1902 and was rebuilt as a simple house, large enough to accommodate visiting family members and friends. After 'Forest Hill,' it was Spelman's second favorite home.
By 1900, Spelman's health had started to deteriorate, and by 1910, she was mostly bedridden. Rockefeller was by her side throughout her final days. The couple even celebrated their 50th anniversary (on September 8, 1914) and her 75th birthday at their Pocantico Hills home. Everyone from their family participated in the celebrations.
Spelman loved music and literature but her husband did not. They were both religious and lived a simple life, despite their enormous wealth. They strongly believed in living for duty and not for enjoyment.
Laura Spelman contracted tuberculosis in her final years and spent the last 6 years of her life in a wheelchair.
Death & Legacy
Spelman died of a heart attack on March 12, 1915. Unfortunately, her husband was in Florida at that time. A private funeral was held on March 15 that year.
Rockefeller established the 'Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial' in 1918, as a tribute to her. It works toward promoting child education, public health, race relations, religion, and social welfare.
Two 'Oread' graduates, Sophia B. Packard and ornamental music teacher Harriet E. Giles, established the private, liberal arts women's college named the 'Spelman College' in Atalanta. The college was started in 1881, as the 'Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary.' However, it received its collegiate charter in 1924. The 'Spelman College' is now part of the 'Atlanta University Center' academic consortium and is America's oldest private historically black liberal arts college for women.
The Rockefeller family would donate 10 percent of their income to charity and the 'Spelman College.'