Laura Spelman Rockefeller (1839 – 1915) was raised in the Midwest, living a short time in Burlington, Iowa before her family moved to Ohio. Her father Harvey Buel Spelman was a member of the state legislator and an abolitionist who was part of the Underground Railroad. As a young woman, she was a school teacher at the Hudson Street School in Cleveland, Ohio where she was promoted to assistant principal at the age of 22. In 1864, she married John D. Rockefeller, founder of the Standard Oil Company and considered one of the wealthiest Americans of all time, with whom she had four daughters and a son. As an adult, she was a well-known philanthropist, supporting many causes, including child development, education, public health, race relations, religion, and social welfare. In her will, she asked that other than a $450,000 bequest to family all of her wealth, $1,500,000, should be distributed by her executors to charities and educational institutions including what was then the Spelman Seminary and today's Spelman College, a leading HBCU. In 1918, her husband established the Laura Spelman Rockefeller Memorial in her memory. The foundation focused on building infrastructure for research and training in "child studies" with an emphasis on interdisciplinary research. by creating child studies institutes at a half dozen universities, including the Universities of Iowa and Minnesota, the University of California-Berkeley, the University of Toronto, and Yale and Columbia Universities. In 1928 the Foundation was merged with the Rockefeller Foundation.
At the University of Iowa, the funds were awarded in 1929 and accepted in a letter from President Jessup. In 1932, they were dedicated to the Iowa Child Welfare Research Station (ICWRS) by the Regents. Coincidentally, the ICWRS was founded by UI faculty member Bird Baldwin who commissioned the design and construction of a private residence at 111 Church House--home of today's Obermann Center--before his untimely death in 1928 from an infection caused by a shaving accident. Decades later, when the ICWRS closed, the funds were transferred to the Obermann Center.
In the spirit of Laura Spelman Rockefeller's commitments and the focus the Foundation that honored her, the Obermann Center uses these funds to support artists, scholars, and researchers whose work focuses on the well-being and education of children and families. The Center is currently using these funds to support two initiatives. We are funding a graduate research assistant who is working on a project with a collaborative team of local nonprofits to create a model for helping vulnerable learners during this period of virtual and hybrid learning. We are also able to provide additional Summer Interdisciplinary Research Grants to faculty members working on what Laura Spelman Rockefeller would have called "child studies."