Johnnetta Cole

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Johnnetta Cole

A distinguished scholar, Johnnetta Cole (born 1936) has served on the faculties of Washington State University, University of Massachusetts, Hunter College, and Spelman College, the historically blackwomen's institution in Atlanta where she was president.

Spelman College is the oldest, most respected institution of higher learning for black women in the United States. It is somewhat ironic, therefore, that 107 years of the school's history passed before a black woman filled its presidential office. Johnnetta Cole is that woman, and since taking responsibility for Spelman in 1987, she has proven to be a dynamic administrator, an energetic fundraiser, and a source of inspiration to both faculty and student body. At a time when historically black colleges have been deemed obsolete by some commentators, Cole has emerged as one of their most passionate advocates. Discussing Spelman with an interviewer from Dollars and Sense, Cole stated: "I think that our students are being pulled here by the ambiance, by the affirming environment, by our insistence that African American women can do anything that they set out to do."

Higher education and high standards of achievement are traditions in Cole's family. In 1901 her great-grandfather, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, cofounded the Afro-American Life Insurance Company of Jacksonville, Florida. That business grew and thrived, eventually employing both of Cole's parents, each of whom had graduated from a black college. Her mother had worked as an English teacher and registrar at Edward Waters College prior to becoming a vice-president of Afro-American Life Insurance, and it was assumed that Johnnetta would also join the family business after completing her education.

Johnnetta was precocious, finishing high school by the age of fifteen. She earned outstanding scores on an entrance examination for Fisk University's early admissions program and began studying there in the summer of 1952. Her stay at Fisk was brief, yet pivotal. While there, a world of intellectual endeavor far beyond anything she'd experienced in Jacksonville's segregated schools was revealed to her. She had frequent contact with Arna Bontemps, the noted writer who also held a job as Fisk's librarian. Seeing this respected author in a work setting was important to her because, as she later wrote in a McCall's column, "When our … heroes are portrayed as bigger than life, living, working, accomplishing beyond the realm of the normal, when they are depicted as perfect human beings, … they are placed so far from us that it seems impossible that we could ever touch them or mirror who they are in our own lives."

After just one year at Fisk, Cole was eager to move on to new horizons. In 1953 she transferred to Oberlin College, where her sister was majoring in music. Seventeen-year-old Johnnetta was by then tightly focused on a career in medicine, but an anthropology course (taken to fulfill a liberal arts requirement) and its enthusiastic instructor changed her direction permanently. "On my own little track, I would have simply taken my science courses, and never would have taken a class with George E. Simpson. This white American professor played Jamaican cult music in the classroom, jumping up and down, beginning to hyperventilate, talking about African retentions in the New World! 'This is what anthropologists try to understand,' said he. 'Good-bye, premed and hello, anthropology!' said I," she was quoted as saying in a Ms. magazine article by Susan McHenry.

After earning her bachelor's degree in anthropology at Oberlin in 1957, Cole went on to graduate study at Northwestern University. There she worked under noted anthropologists Paul J. Bohannan and Melville J. Herskovits. To her surprise, she also fell in love with a white graduate student in the economics program. "It was not my plan to fall in love with Robert Cole," she remarked in Ms."And I doubt seriously that this man coming from an Iowa dairy farming family … intended to fall in love with a black woman from Jacksonville, Florida." Nevertheless, the two were married. Robert Cole shared his wife's fascination with Africa, and after their wedding day, they traveled to Liberia to work cooperatively on research that would form the basis of both their dissertations.

Conducted Anthropological Studies Abroad

She did anthropological field studies in villages while he conducted economic surveys of the area. Cole has stated that the experience of living in Africa imparted a unique perspective to her and her husband that helped their interracial marriage endure for more than twenty years, despite the fact that they returned to the United States at the beginning of the black power movement. It was "a time when for many black folk interracial marriage was a problem," she was quoted as saying in Ms. "But perhaps because I was working largely in an academic setting, with students, it was not just manageable, it was all right."

By 1967 Cole had completed her dissertation, "Traditional and Wage Earning Labor in Liberia," received her Ph.D. from Northwestern, and joined her husband as a faculty member at Washington State University. Beginning as an assistant professor of anthropology, she went on to become a key player in the creation of the school's Black Studies program, also serving as director of the program. In 1970, Cole and her husband moved to New England, where she had been offered a tenured position at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. She spent thirteen productive years there, developing the existing Afro-American Studies program, increasing the interaction between her school and the others in the Connecticut River valley, teaching courses in anthropology and Afro-American studies, and serving as provost of undergraduate education.

Cole's marriage ended in 1982, and the following year she moved on to Hunter College of the City University of New York. She remained on the staff of the anthropology department until 1987 and was director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies program. She continued her field work, which since her days in Liberia had encompassed studies of households headed by women, the lives of Caribbean women, Cape Verdean culture in the United States, and racial and gender inequality in Cuba.

Wrote on Issues of Culture, Race, and Gender

Cole's focus on cultural anthropology, Afro-American studies, and women's issues all came together in a ground-breaking book published in 1986. All-American Women: Lines That Divide, Ties That Bind was cited by numerous reviewers for its perceptive synthesis of issues concerning race, class, gender, and ethnicity. Cole remarked in Ms. that her field work has definitely influenced the administrative side of her career: "I tend to look at problems in ways that I think are very, very much in the anthropological tradition. Which means, first of all, one appreciates the tradition, but second, one also at least raises the possibility that there are different ways of doing the same thing. And it's in that discourse where interesting things can happen."

When Spelman College began looking for a new president in 1986, finding a black woman for the job was a top priority. When the school was founded in 1880 by white abolitionists from New England, it was conceived as a missionary school where emancipated slave women could learn literacy, practical skills, and Christian virtues. Its first four presidents were white women; the first black to fill the office, Albert Manley, was not hired until the 1950s. When he left in the mid-1970s, a small but very vocal group of students demanded a black woman president for this black woman's school. The search committee had three excellent candidates that fit the criteria, but two of them withdrew from the selection process before it was completed. The third was offered the job, but had already accepted another. Donald Stewart, former associate dean at University of Pennsylvania, was hired. A group of Spelman students reacted angrily to the announcement, locking the trustees in their boardroom for twenty-six hours.

Became President of Spelman College

When Stewart left office ten years later, Cole was clearly the standout choice of all the applicants for the vacancy, not just because of her race and sex but because of her strong background as a scholar, a feminist, and a student of black heritage. "Her credentials were not only impeccable, but her incredible energy and enthusiasm came through during the personal interview. She showed certain brilliance in every sense of the word," Veronica Biggins, co-vice-chair of Spelman's board of trustees, was quoted as saying in Working Woman. "Cole's charismatic personality, cooperative leadership style, and firm 'black womanist' attitude … raise[d] expectations for an exciting new era at Spelman," according to a Ms. article published shortly after Cole took office. "While [she] is a highly qualified, purposeful, serious-minded individual, she is also a thoroughly warm and unpretentious sister—in both the black and feminist senses of the term."

Cole's presidency had an exciting kickoff—during her inauguration, Bill and Camille Cosby announced a gift of $20 million to Spelman. Delighted with the donation, Cole was nevertheless quick to point out that there is never enough money. She estimates that fund-raising took up 50 percent of her time. The other half was divided between teaching (one class per term), building up academics, and starting new traditions such as her Mentorship Program, in which CEOs of six major Atlanta corporations are paired with promising students from Spelman. She is committed to building and maintaining a powerful liberal arts program at the school, for it is her belief that a good liberal arts education is the proper foundation for any career. "I tell my students to write, to learn to think, and the rest will fall in place," she told Working Woman contributor Audrey Edwards.

Looking to the Future

Cole firmly believes that African American colleges are vital to African American success. She has frequently quoted statistics showing that although only 17 percent of African American students enter African American colleges, 37 percent of those who make it to graduation were attending African American colleges, and a full 75 percent of African American professional women are graduates of African American colleges. She is convinced that these schools give African American students more opportunities to excel, to discover their heritage, and to see role models in their own image. "I am obviously not an objective soul. I happen to think that this school is the greatest women's college in America," she told an interviewer for Dollars and Sense. When asked what lies ahead, she responded: "I would like to think that Spelman has in her future a good deal of continuity and some intriguing changes. … Tradition is important at this institution, not just for its own sake, but because it works."

In September 1996, Cole announced that she would by relinquishing her Spelman College presidency in the spring of 1997. She said that she planned to take a year off before moving on to Emory University to teach anthropology.

In her 1993 book Conversations: Straight Talk with America's Sister President, Cole broadens her call for a new order, targeting "a multiplicity of audiences" with her message of equality. Mixing enthusiastic discourse on race, gender, and learning with ruminations on her own experiences as an African American woman, she argues for the eradication of racist and sexist views through education, tolerance, and expanded social awareness. While reaching readers of both sexes and all races, Cole marshals the forces of young African American women in the United States to act for change, stating, "We African American women must cure whatever ails us."

Further Reading

Bateson, Catherine, Composing a Life, Atlantic Monthly Press, 1989.

Cole, Johnnetta, Conversations: Straight Talk with America's Sister President, Doubleday, 1993.

Art in America, September 1990.

Change, September/October 1987. Dollars and Sense, March 1992.

Ebony, February 1988.

Essence, November 1987; July 1990.

McCall's, October 1990; February 1991.

Ms., October 1987.

New York Times, July 20, 1987.

Publishers Weekly, July 13, 1992; November 30, 1992.

SAGE: A Scholarly Journal on Black Women, Fall 1988.

USA Today, October 11, 1990

Working Woman, June 1989; November 1991.

Atlanta Journal and Atlanta Constitution September 8, 1996. □