Johnnetta Cole

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Johnnetta Cole
Dr. Johnnetta Cole, Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art.jpg
Personal details
Johnnetta Betsch

(1936-10-19) October 19, 1936 (age 85)
Jacksonville, Florida, U.S.
Political partyDemocratic
EducationFisk University
Oberlin College (BA)
Northwestern University (MA, PhD)

Johnnetta Betsch Cole (born October 19, 1936) is an American anthropologist, educator, museum director, and college president. Cole was the first female African-American president of Spelman College, a historically black college, serving from 1987 to 1997. She was president of Bennett College from 2002 to 2007. During 2009–2017 she was Director of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of African Art.[1]


Johnnetta Betsch was born in Jacksonville, Florida,[2] on October 19, 1936.[3] Her family belonged to the African-American upper class; She was a granddaughter of Abraham Lincoln Lewis, Florida's first black millionaire, entrepreneur and cofounder of the Afro-American Industrial and Benefit Association,[4] and Mary Kingsley Sammis. Sammis' great-grandparents were Zephaniah Kingsley, a white slave trader and slave owner, who purchased African slave Anna Madgigine Jai in 1806, when she was 13 years old and he was 43 years old. Within 5 years, the statutory rapist had impregnated her three times and she bore his children, George, born June 1807; Martha, born July 1809; and Mary, born February 1811. When she was 18, Zephaniah freed Anna and she herself became a slave owner, working with her former slave owner. Formerly a Wolof princess who was originally from present-day Senegal, her Fort George Island home is protected as Kingsley Plantation, a National Historic Landmark.[5]

Cole enrolled at the age of 15 in Fisk University, a historically black college. She transferred to Oberlin College in Ohio, where she completed a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology in 1957. She attended graduate school at Northwestern University, earning her Master of Arts (1959) and Doctor of Philosophy (1967) degrees in anthropology. She did her dissertation field research in Liberia, West Africa, in 1960–1961 through Northwestern University as part of their economic survey of the country.[4]


Cole served as a professor at Washington State University from 1962 to 1970, where she cofounded one of the US's first black studies programs. In 1970 Cole began working in the Department of Anthropology at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, where she served until 1982. While at the University of Massachusetts, she played a pivotal role in the development of the university's W. E. B. Du Bois Department of African-American Studies. Cole then moved to Hunter College in 1982, and became director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies program. From 1998 to 2001 Cole was a professor of Anthropology, Women's Studies, and African American Studies at Emory University in Atlanta.[4]


In 1987, Cole was selected as the first black female president of Spelman College, a prestigious historically black college for women. She served until 1997, building up their endowment through a $113 million capital campaign, attracting significantly higher enrollment as students increased, and, overall, the ranking of the school among the best liberal arts schools went up.[6] Comedian Bill Cosby and his wife Camille contributed $20 million to the capital campaign.[7]

After teaching at Emory University, she was recruited as president of Bennett College for Women, also a historically black college for women. There she led another successful capital campaign. In addition, she founded an art gallery to contribute to the college's culture.[7] Cole is currently the Chair of the Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity & Inclusion Institute founded at Bennett College for Women. She is a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

She was Director of the National Museum of African Art, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC, during 2009–2017.[7] During her directorship the controversial exhibit, "Conversations: African and African-American Artworks in Dialogue," featuring dozens of pieces from Bill and Camille Cosby's private art collection was held in 2015, coinciding with accusations of sexual assault against the comedian.[8]


Cole has also served in major corporations and foundations. Cole served for many years as board member at the prestigious Rockefeller Foundation. She has been a director of Merck & Co. since 1994. From 2004 to 2006, Cole was the Chair of the Board of Trustees of United Way of America[9] and is on the Board of Directors of the United Way of Greater Greensboro.[10]

Since 2013, Cole has been listed on the Advisory Council of the National Center for Science Education.[11] She is a member of The Links.[12]: 105 

Political activity[edit]

President-elect Bill Clinton appointed Cole to his transition team for education, labor, the arts, and humanities in 1992.[13] He also considered her for the cabinet post of Secretary of Education.[14] However, when The Jewish Daily Forward reported that she had been a member of the national committee of the Venceremos Brigades, which the Federal Bureau of Investigation had tied to Cuban intelligence forces, Clinton did not advance her nomination.[15]

Legacy and honors[edit]


I pose that question to myself, why, in the 107 years of the history of this historically Black college for women, there has not been an African-American woman president.

— Johnnetta B. Cole[3]

This is a nation whose spoken and written vision is chillingly beautiful.

— Johnnetta B. Cole[22]

The more we pull together toward a new day, the less it matters what pushed us apart in the past.

— Johnnetta B. Cole[23]

We are for difference: for respecting difference for allowing difference, for encouraging difference, until difference no longer makes a difference.

— Johnnetta B. Cole[23]

The ultimate expression of generosity is not in giving of what you have, but in giving of who you are.

— Johnnetta B. Cole[24]


  1. ^ Trescott, Jacqueline (February 10, 2009). "Johnnetta Cole Named New Director of the National Museum of African Art". The Washington Post; accessed October 5, 2011.
  2. ^ "Johnnetta Cole | Biography & Facts". Encyclopedia Britannica. Retrieved 2019-03-02.
  3. ^ a b "Johnnetta B. Cole, PhD" Archived 2011-10-06 at the Wayback Machine at the Academy of Achievement
  4. ^ a b c Yelvington, Kevin (2003). "An Interview with Johnnetta Betsch Cole". Current Anthropology. 44 (2): 275–288. doi:10.1086/367970. JSTOR 10.1086/367970. S2CID 144776574.
  5. ^ Jackson, Antoinette; Burns, Allan (January 2006). Ethnohistorical Study of the Kingsley Plantation Community, National Park Service, p. 24.
  6. ^ "About Johnnetta B. Cole, Ph.D." Retrieved March 17, 2018.
  7. ^ a b c Jacqueline Trescott, "Johnnetta Cole Named New Director of the National Museum of African Art", The Washington Post, February 10, 2009.
  8. ^ McGlone, Peggy. "At 80, Johnnetta Cole reflects on her career and the controversial Cosby exhibition". The Washington Post. Retrieved March 17, 2018.
  9. ^ "Dr. Johnnetta Cole". United Way of America; accessed October 07, 2011.
  10. ^ "Shifting Paradigms: Progressive Pathways to Diversity, Equity & Inclusion?" Archived 2012-04-15 at the Wayback Machine, Ohio State University; accessed October 7, 2011.
  11. ^ "Advisory Council". National Center for Science Education. 2008-07-15. Archived from the original on 2013-08-10. Retrieved 2018-10-30.
  12. ^ Graham, Lawrence Otis (2014). Our kind of people. [Place of publication not identified]: HarperCollins e-Books. ISBN 978-0-06-187081-1. OCLC 877899803.
  13. ^ MAKERS. "Johnnetta Cole". MAKERS.
  14. ^ President of Spelman College, Johnnetta Cole, Fresh Air program, 1993.
  15. ^ Susan Chira. Conversations/Johnnetta B. Cole; A Scholar's Convictions Keep Her Pushing the Power of Words, New York Times, January 10, 1993.
  16. ^ "Chief Executive Leadership Institute Honors Johnnetta B. Cole of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art". 2018-01-30. Retrieved March 17, 2018.
  17. ^ "Sit-in museum to present awards". The Winston-Salem Chronicle. February 1, 2013. Retrieved April 11, 2013.
  18. ^ "Phi Beta Kappa-Delta Chapter | Fisk University". Archived from the original on 2017-01-07. Retrieved 2018-03-15.
  19. ^ "Bulletin" (PDF). Archived from the original (PDF) on 2016-03-10. Retrieved 2017-01-06.
  20. ^ "Golden Plate Awardees of the American Academy of Achievement". American Academy of Achievement.
  21. ^ "CANDACE AWARD RECIPIENTS 1982-1990, Page 2". National Coalition of 100 Black Women. Archived from the original on March 14, 2003.
  22. ^ "Keys to Success - The American Dream". Academy of Achievement. Archived from the original on January 9, 2008. Retrieved November 24, 2007.
  23. ^ a b "State of the City Address, Mayor Shirley Franklin". City of Atlanta Online. January 5, 2004. Archived from the original on October 13, 2007. Retrieved November 24, 2007.
  24. ^ "Volunteer Opportunities".; accessed October 5, 2011.

External links[edit]