Two Valley women, Sophia Packard and Harriet Giles, were included in a recent Autostraddle.com post: “16 Lesbian Power Couples From History Who Got Shit Done, Together.”
Sophie Packard and Hattie Giles never called themselves “lesbians,” a term that had yet to be popularized in the late 19th century. They may well have been horrified to have – or be thought to have had – a sexual relationship. I include them as two of our own, as Autostraddle.com has done, because they stepped outside of the strictures of patriarchal marriage to embrace a committed union with each other.
Miss Packard said in an 1888 reunion address to alumni at New Salem Academy that she had found her “life companion” there at the school. She was referring to Miss Giles, with whom she lived and often worked for the thirty-six years from 1855 to 1891.
Both were born and raised in New Salem, Massachusetts, the small hilltown on State Route 202, east of and above what is now Quabbin Reservoir. It was perhaps because of their four year age difference that they had not been close before the Academy. Miss Packard was born in 1824 and Miss Giles in 1828. Sophie Packard began her career as a school teacher at the age of sixteen in Shutesbury, but continued her education at New Salem Academy. At New Salem, she was a preceptor, which was a student role roughly like a teaching assistant. There she met Hattie, who attended the Academy from 1843 through 1848.
The two may have begun living and working together after Hattie’s graduation. Academy alumnae accounts merely note that they were both assistant teachers at the Academy in 1853 and 1854. They taught together in various private and public schools in Fitchburg, Dana, Orange, Greenfield, Petersham, and other places.
Sophie Packard also graduated from Charlestown Female Seminary in 1850 and subsequently became principal of several institutions where Hattie Giles taught as well. After she became an active leader in the Woman’s American Baptist Home Mission Society, Miss Packard sought more fulfilling work. She became a pastor’s assistant in Worcester for eight years, serving young women who came to the city to work in the factories.
In 1881, the two, now in their fifties, took a trip South to see where they might start a school to offer an education to African American women in the first generation after the Civil War. They thought Louisiana might be a likely place, but on their way there, they stopped in Atlanta, Georgia. There, they met Reverend Frank Quarles. Rev. Quarles was the minister of Friendship Baptist Church and, as a leader in the Atlanta Black community, had been seeking ways to build an education system. Rev. Quarles offered Miss Packard and Miss Giles the use of the Church basement as the beginning of a collaboration.
Several weeks later, on April 11, 1881, the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary opened in the “dink-damp” basement of the church. There were eleven girls as students. Miss Packard and Miss Giles were teaching, but had little yet in the way of equipment or materials. Rev. Quarles and the Yankee schoolmarms soon made trips North to secure funding, not only for supplies, but also additional teachers and larger, permanent facilities. Rev. Quarles fell ill on such a trip. He died, but not before seeing his own daughter Frankie begin school in the first class.
Two years later, the Atlanta Baptist Female Seminary moved with sixty students to a converted military barracks purchased by the American Baptist Home Mission Society. Sophia Packard was the Seminary’s first president. Over the years, the Seminary added vocational training in nursing and teaching training, as well as a high school diploma program, and later a college curriculum. John D. Rockefeller gave substantial amounts of money to fund the buildings. In 1884, the institution changed its name to Spelman Seminary in order to honor the anti-slavery activist parents of Rockefeller’s wife Laura Spelman Rockefeller.
Miss Sophie Packard died in 1891. Miss Hattie Giles took over the role of Seminary President until her own death in 1910. But that time, Spellman had become the largest Black women’s seminary in the world. Today it is known as Spelman College. Miss Packard and Miss Giles are buried next to each other in the Packard family plot in the Silver Lake Cemetery in Athol, Massachusetts.
__Riese. ”16 Lesbian Power Couples From History Who Got Shit Done, Together.” Autostraddle. March 31, 2017. https://www.autostraddle.com/16-lesbian-power-couples-from-history-who-changed-the-world-together-372223/
__Bullard, Eugene. History of New Salem Academy. New Salem, Massachusetts; 1913.
__Mitchell, Deborah. “Father Quarles and Aunt Ruth: Leaders for Spelman and All of Georgia. Accessed 4/21/17. NOTE this is the source for the photo of the two women used by Autostraddle.com, which apparently got it from Spelman College Archives. The names however are mislabeled, the opposite of what was included in the identical photos printed in the Reunion Banner. http://kcac.kennesaw.edu/thematic_content/educating_for_citizenship/leaders.html
__Reunion Banner. New Salem Academy. New Salem, Massachusetts: 1881, 1888, 1895, 1910. Sophie Packard and Hattie Giles reported their news to their former classmates here over the years, including the photographs of them and Spelman Seminary. Available locally at Amherst MA Jones Library Special Collections.
__Young, Allen. North of Quabbin Revisited. Athol, Massachusetts: Haley’s; 2003. A thank you to Allen who first informed me of the local ladies.