As we approach our 175th Anniversary, the educational mission that has distinguished Packer as a vibrant and close-knit learning community continues to thrive.Packer was first established as the Brooklyn Female Academy at its present location on Joralemon Street in 1845, a mere 12 years after the incorporation of the City of Brooklyn. In its early years, James Polk was the President of the United States; Florida and Texas were granted statehood; and Walt Whitman was working just a few blocks away as the editor of the Brooklyn Daily Eagle. The school opened with 23 educators and 350 students who hailed from 19 states.
A devastating fire on New Year’s Day in 1853, however, threatened the school’s success, but a $65,000 gift from Harriet Packer resurrected it — with one caveat: that it be renamed after her late husband, William Packer. From the ashes rose a grand Gothic Revival-building — completed in 1854 and known today as Founder’s Hall — to anchor the new Packer Collegiate Institute, which was coeducational through the 4th grade and for girls from 5th through 12th Grade.
Packer’s extensive and historically significant archives (see sidebar at right), which are housed at the Brooklyn Historical Society, reveal that its students felt the impact of the Civil War, a period when a small number of students hailing from the South boarded at Packer. Students frequently discussed the national conflict in the Packer Chapel. Indeed, Brooklyn Heights itself was a major center of the Abolition movement. Students sewed, knitted, and raised money for soldiers on both sides of the war. In 1883, the Brooklyn Bridge connected our metropolis with the city of Manhattan. Boarding students from more than half the country grew the school’s student population, and in 1919, Packer opened a junior college, offering two years of undergraduate education with classes ranging from Latin to zoology to constitutional law. Some five decades later, in 1972, Packer closed the junior college and became fully coeducational.
The story of Packer is more than that of a school. It is one of social and economic transformation in Brooklyn and the United States. It is the story of the development of urban growth and institution-building, of the evolving status of American women and a progressive commitment to women's education reaching back to before the Civil War, and of the changing beliefs about education and its role in American society." — Bruce L. Dennis,
Head of School
(2004 – 2019)
Many notable alumnae of The Packer Collegiate Institute would go on to make an impact around the world. Some prominent graduates include:
- Mary White Ovington, Class of 1859, Co-Founder of NAACP
- Alice Caruth Chadwick, Class of 1864, First woman member of Brooklyn Board of Education
- Sarah Truslow Dickinson, Class of 1882, Established the YMCA in Brooklyn
- Mary Calhoun, Class of 1893, Founder of The Calhoun School in Manhattan
- Elizabeth Irwin, Class of 1899, Pioneer in education for the handicapped and founder of Little Red Elizabeth Irwin School (LREI) in Manhattan
- Lois Hammersberg Lowry ’56, author of twenty novels, including The Giver
- Katha Pollitt ’67, nationally-syndicated political columnist, poet, author and lecturer
- Ruth Brown ’77, Executive Director of Ronald McDonald House of New York
- Malcolm D. Lee ’88, award-winning filmmaker, director, writer, and producer
Since its founding, Packer has been a respected, rigorous school with an abiding progressive sensibility. Today, it maintains a well-defined sense of purpose, vibrant and developing in the new millennium. Packer remains, in the words of our mission, grounded in tradition while embracing the future.
The extraordinary history of The Packer Collegiate Institute has been revitalized through a project developed by the Brooklyn Historical Society (BHS). The project draws on highlights from Packer's archives and involved three years of research generously funded by the Leon Levy Foundation. BHS's Othmer Library digitized, preserved, and catalogued the archival materials.
As a graduate of Packer and a Brooklynite, I am thrilled with the Leon Levy Foundation's role in perpetuating the legacy of an institution that played a formative role in my life."
— Shelby White '55, founding trustee of the Leon Levy Foundation
Former English faculty member Marjorie L. Nickerson (1910-1941) explores Packer's first one hundred years.
Read about Packer’s historic and award-winning architecture, unique to its downtown setting.