Player, Willa B. 1909–2003
Willa B. Player 1909–2003
College president, administrator, educator
The first African-American woman to become president of a four-year college in the United States, Willa B. Player was a quiet but crucial contributor to the struggle for civil rights in the South. When students at Bennett College, the North Carolina school she presided over for ten years in the 1950s and 1960s, were jailed during lunch counter sitins, Player brought their assignments to their jail cells, insuring that their studies would not be interrupted. Widely known for her bold decision to host an important early speech by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., Player served as an inspiration to several generations of female students during her 35-year career at Bennett.
The youngest of three children, Willa Beatrice Player was born on August 9, 1909, in Jackson, Mississippi. The Player family moved north to Akron, Ohio, in 1916 or 1917, and as a teenager Willa was actively involved with the Methodist church the family attended. She reaped rewards for the hours she spent in the church’s youth choir, for her church involvement opened up one of the few paths to a college education available to a black woman at the time. After graduating from Akron’s West High School, Player was accepted at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, a Methodist school. She was one of three black students who, because of their race, were not permitted to stay in campus dormitories.
Player graduated from Ohio Wesleyan in 1929 and earned a master’s degree at Oberlin College the following year. From there, the 21-year-old Player was hired to teach French and Latin at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, a new Methodist-affiliated school oriented toward the education of African-American women. She would spend most of her career at Bennett, rising through the college’s administrative hierarchy and holding the posts of director of admissions, dean, coordinator of instruction, and vice president. She added to her educational credentials, studying on a Fulbright fellowship in France in 1935, doing graduate work at the Universities of Chicago and Wisconsin, and earning a doctorate in education from Columbia University in 1948.
In 1956 she was named Bennett’s president, becoming the first black woman president of a four-year college in the United States. Player herself didn’t focus on the historic nature of the appointment. “All I was thinking was that I had a job to do,” she said in an interview
Born on August 9, 1909, in Jackson, MS; died on August 27, 2003, in Greensboro, NC. Education: Ohio Wesleyan University, BA; Oberlin College, MA; University of Grenoble, France, post graduate studies; University of Chicago, post-graduate studies; University of Wisconsin, post graduate studies; Columbia University, PhD, education, 1948.
Career: Bennett College, Greensboro, NC, instructor in Latin and French, 1930–1940s, director of admissions, dean, coordinator of instruction, and vice president, 1940s–1950s, president, 1956–66; Division of College Support, Department of Education, Washington, DC, director, 1966–77; higher education consultant and lecturer, 1970s–1990s.
quoted in Notable Black American Women. To students at Bennett, Player was an inspiring and even awesome figure. Elegantly dressed and commanding in manner, Player took a personal interest in student life. “Many nights, as students lingered by the magnolias saying goodbye to their dates, a quiet figure passed by,” Bennett alumna Mary Ann Scarlette recalled to the Greensboro News & Record. Player raised Bennett’s academic profile, and the institution became one of the first historically black schools to win accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools.
The changes that were beginning to stir in the South in the late 1950s thrust Player into a critical position. In 1958 a proposed appearance by the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. to the Greensboro area carried with it the possibility of violent retaliation by terrorist elements of the Southern white population, and no organization in Greensboro seemed willing to take the chance of playing host to the famous activist. Player, however, organized a campus appearance by King, arguing, as quoted by the News & Record, “Bennett College is a liberal arts school where freedom rings, so Martin Luther King Jr. can speak here.” Player herself later ranked King’s visit as one of the key moments in the college’s history.
King’s speech at Bennett helped make central North Carolina a focal point for the growing civil rights movement. In 1960 students from nearby North Carolina A&T University organized a sit-in aimed at desegregating a downtown Greensboro Woolworth’s lunch counter. The students were quickly joined in similar protests by Bennett students who, though not urged on by Player, received her unequivocal support. Asked by city leaders to order the students back to campus, Player’s niece Linda Brown recalled in a Winston-Salem Journal interview that Player responded, “We don’t teach our students what to think. We teach them how to think. If I have to give exams in jail, that’s what I’ll do.”
Player made good on that promise, when up to 40 percent of Bennett’s students were jailed at various times. Students remembered that Player visited them in jail and on protest picket lines, negotiated on their behalf for better treatment, and made sure that their educational careers were not interrupted. Current Bennett president Johnnetta Cole told the News & Record that Player played a “quiet but piercingly effective role in the struggle for civil rights in Greensboro … She was incapable of being ordinary.”
Player retired from Bennett’s presidency in 1966 to take a position in the federal Department of Education under President Lyndon Johnson. As director of the Division of College Support she was instrumental in directing increased financial support toward historically underfunded black colleges through a program called Strengthening Developing Institutions. In later life, Player moved back to Akron for a time and remained active on numerous church and educational advisory boards. She was the recipient of numerous honorary degrees and was named to the Ohio Women’s Hall of Fame in 1984. She never married. According to the Akron Beacon-Journal, Player remarked to a friend, “I didn’t have time for men. I was too busy educating the youth.”
Player understood that the gains made by black women over the years did not mean they had achieved equality in society. According to the Akron Beacon-Journal, she remarked in a 1985 speech in Wooster, Ohio, that “the black woman is expected to be a superwoman without acting like one.” Player suffered a stroke in 1995 and died in Greensboro on August 27, 2003, at the age of 94. Looking back on her own accomplishments in a 1997 interview quoted by the News & Record, Player recalled the straightforward energy with which she had approached every problem she had encountered over her career: “There were people who said, ‘How did that one lone little woman do this?’…. I wonder how I ever did it without being afraid, but it never occurred to me to be afraid.”
Smith, Jessie Carney, ed., Notable Black American Women, Book 1, Gale, 1992.
Akron Beacon-Journal November 29, 2003.
News & Record (Piedmont Triad, NC), August 28, 2003, p. B1; August 29, 2003, p. A16; September 5, 2003, p. B1.
New York Times, August 30, 2003, p. B7.
Winston-Salem Journal, August 28, 2003, p. B1.
—James M. Manheim
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