Mary Robinson Spivey shows off her replacement diploma from Morehouse College with Provost Weldon Jackson and President Robert Franklin at the May 2011 ceremony. Spivey was one of 33 women who enrolled in Morehouse between 1929 and 1933. CONTRIBUTED BY MOREHOUSE COLLEGE
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Mary Spivey: The Morehouse Woman

All-male school welcomed Spivey, 32 other women as Great Depression hit enrollment

Mary Cecelia Robinson Spivey knew she belonged early on.

Only 15 years old when she arrived on her college campus for the first time in 1929, she found herself surrounded in class by a group of boys who didn’t have any answers for the professor.

Finally, she raised her hand.

“I said, ‘Oh, I got this,’” she recalled. “(The professor said) ‘Men, you should be ashamed of yourselves. You let this lady come in here and just run rings around you.’ They couldn’t do anything but look at me and shake their heads.”

Hail Mary Cecelia Robinson Spivey — the last Morehouse Woman.

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Mary Robinson Spivey shows off her replacement diploma from Morehouse College with Provost Weldon Jackson and President Robert Franklin at the May 2011 ceremony. Spivey was one of 33 women who enrolled in Morehouse between 1929 and 1933. CONTRIBUTED BY MOREHOUSE COLLEGE
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Without question, Morehouse College is the premier and only all-male black college in America with a long and storied history of educating black men like Martin Luther King Jr. and Spike Lee.

But deep in that history is the oft-forgotten story of 33 women who graduated from the Atlanta school.

In the late 1920s and early 1930s, the Great Depression, while ravaging the country, was taking a particular toll on black institutions. In fact, several HBCUs didn’t make it out of the Depression.

Even prominent colleges like the private Morehouse took hits, particularly in enrollment as men had to choose between an education and feeding their families.

To counter that, in 1929 Morehouse began admitting women.

Women had always taken classes at Morehouse, and even today students from Clark Atlanta University and Spelman take classes at Morehouse that are not offered on their campuses.

But this was different.

According to Morehouse historical documents, the college “allowed public school teachers to take extension classes in the evenings, with many going on to earn their degrees from Morehouse.”

Lottie Louise Bailey Harris, a 1931 graduate of , was one of 33 women who entered the all-male HBCU between 1929 and 1933.
Photo: Morehouse College

While the program was mainly in the evenings, there were some students, like Spivey, who attended classes during the day.

“Everybody was so nice,” Spivey told Morehouse historians. “I had no problems.”

Only 15 when she arrived at Morehouse, Mary Cecelia Robinson graduated in 1933. Until she died in 2014 at the age of 99, she was Morehouse’s last living female graduate.

After graduating from Morehouse, Spivey got a master’s degree in education from Atlanta University and went on to work as an educator in elementary and special education classrooms.

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“She was proud that she could say she graduated from Morehouse,” her daughter, Yvette Spivey Cooper, told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 2014. “That was one thing she would talk about, but she didn’t talk much about herself.”

In 2011, some 78 years after graduating, Spivey found herself on the commencement stage one last time. At some point, someone had stolen her diploma. Morehouse surprised her with a replacement at the school’s 2011 graduation ceremony.

Mary Robinson Spivey, a 1933 graduate, receives her replacement diploma from Morehouse President Robert Franklin during the 127th Commencement ceremony at Morehouse on May 15, 2011. VINO WONG / AJC FILE PHOTO
Photo: The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

The program quietly stopped admitting women in 1933, and at least one woman — Lois M. Burge — graduated in 1937.

BLACK HISTORY MONTH

Throughout February, we’ll spotlight a different African-American pioneer in the daily Living section Mondays through Thursdays and Saturdays, and in the Metro section on Fridays and Sundays. Go to ajc.com/news/martin-luther-king-jr for more subscriber exclusives on people, places and organizations that have changed the world, and to see videos on the African-American pioneer featured here each day.

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