College president and civic leader Johnnetta B. Cole was born on October 19, 1936 in Jacksonville, Florida to John and Mary Francis. She was admitted to Fisk University at the age of fifteen, and later transferred to Oberlin College where she received her B.A. degree in sociology in 1957. Cole subsequently earned her M.A. and Ph.D. degrees in anthropology from Northwestern University in 1959 and 1967.
In 1970, Cole accepted a faculty position at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, where she served as a professor of anthropology and Afro-American studies. Her first book, Free and Equal: the End of Racial Discrimination in Cuba, was published in 1978. In 1982, Cole became the director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies program at Hunter College in New York City. She was then named the first black female president of Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia in 1987. During her tenure as president, she increased Spelman’s endowment to over $113 million, attracted higher student enrollment, and improved Spelman’s overall ranking. In 1992, Cole served on President Bill Clinton’s transition team as cluster coordinator for Education, Labor, and the Arts. After leaving Spelman in 1997, Cole was hired as a professor of anthropology, women’s studies, and African American Studies at Emory University; and, in 2002, she became the sixth president of Bennett College. There, she increased endowment, raised funds for an on-campus art museum, and initiated the women’s studies and global studies programs. She stepped down as president of Bennett College in 2007 and was named director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in Washington D.C. in 2009.
Cole authored numerous books including All American Women: Lines That Divide,Ties That Bind (ed.) in 1986, Anthropology for the Ninties (ed.) in 1988, Conversations: Straight Talk with America’s Sister President in 1994, Dream the Boldest Dream and Other Lessons of Life in 2001, and Gender Talk – the Struggle for Women’s Equality in African American’s Communities in 2003.
Cole has served on the board of directors of the Coca-Cola Company, the Rockefeller Foundation, Merck & Co., United Way of America, and Home Depot. She also served as chair of the Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute at Bennett College, and has worked with the Ford and the Andrew W. Mellon foundations to encourage greater diversity and inclusive practices in American art museums.
She has received numerous awards for her work, including the 1988 Candace Award from the National Coalition of 100 Black Women, the 2013 Alston-Jones International Civil and Human Rights Award, an Alumnae Award from Northwestern, the Reginald Wilson Diversity Leadership Award from the American Council on Education, and the BET Honors Award for Education in 2015. Cole has also been awarded sixty-eight honorary degrees and is a member of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.
Cole has three sons, one step-son, and three grandchildren.
Johnnetta B. Cole was interviewed by TheHistoryMakers on February 11, 2019.
American Beach near Amelia Island
When Women Lead, Streams Run Uphill
District of Columbia
Seafood, Peanut Butter
College president and civic leader Johnnetta B. Cole (1936 - ) became the first African American female president of Spelman College in 1987 and was named director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in 2009.
University of Massachusetts Amherst
National Museum of African Art
Washington State University
Bill Clinton Administration
Red and Black