Willa Beatrice Player
Willa Beatrice Player
|Born||September 9, 1909|
Jackson, Mississippi, United States
|Died||August 29, 2003 (aged 93)|
Greensboro, North Carolina, United States
|Occupation||Educator, college president, civil rights activist|
|Parent(s)||Clarence C. Day|
Willa Beatrice Player (August 9, 1909 – August 29, 2003) was an African-American educator, college administrator, college president, civil rights activist, and federal appointee. Player was the first African American woman to become president of a four-year fully accredited liberal arts college when she took the position at Bennett College for Women in Greensboro, North Carolina.
In her career at Bennett College, Player had served as a teacher and then in progressively responsible administrator positions. From 1955 to 1966, Player served as president of the historically black college, during a period of heightened civil rights activism in the South. She supported Bennett students who took part in the lengthy sit-ins started by the Greensboro Four to achieve integration of lunch counters in downtown stores.
Player had a strong education, earning a BA degree from Ohio Wesleyan College, a Master's from Oberlin College, a Certificat d'Études at University of Grenoble in France, and a PhD from Columbia University. After leaving the Bennett presidency, Player was appointed in 1966 by President Lyndon B. Johnson as the first female Director of the Division of College Support in the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare, serving until 1986.
Willa Player, the youngest of three children, was born to Clarence C. and Beatrice (Day) Player in Jackson, Mississippi in 1909. Her family moved to Akron, Ohio in 1917 when Player was 8 years old, as part of the Great Migration in the first half of the 20th century of African Americans to northern and midwestern industrial cities for work and educational opportunities. Growing up in a religious family, Player was active with them in the Methodist church. As a teenager, she spent hours as a member of the youth choir, which aided her pathway to college. Player graduated from West High School in Akron and was accepted in 1925 to Ohio Wesleyan University, a Methodist university.
She was one of three African-American students admitted to the college that year. They were not allowed to live in the dorms on-campus, as it was thought special provisions needed to be made for them. Player graduated in 1929. In 1930, Player earned a master's degree from Oberlin College.
In the fall of 1930 at the age of 21, Player was hired to teach Latin and French at Bennett College, a historically black, United Methodist-affiliated college located in Greensboro, North Carolina. Originally founded in 1873 as a coed normal school for training teachers, it had become a women's college in 1926.
After teaching at Bennett for a few years, Player took a leave of absence for postgraduate studies. She studied at the University of Grenoble in France, where she received a Certificat d'Études in 1935.
Player returned to Bennett College after studying in France. She was selected as Director of Admissions and also served as the Acting Dean. In 1937, freshman student Frances Jones, daughter of the college president, David Dallas Jones, led a civil rights action in Greensboro. Player and R. Nathaniel Dett advised the younger Jones as she led a boycott and protest of segregated movie theaters and racist portrayals in film offerings in downtown Greensboro.
Player left Bennett College to pursue her Ph.D., which she received from Columbia University in 1948. Years later, she did post-doctoral studies at the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin. After Player returned to Bennett, she was promoted to Coordinator of Instruction and, in 1952, to Vice-President of Bennett College. Jet reported that she was the first person of color to be offered the presidency of Spelman College in Atlanta that year, but chose to stay with Bennett. Its president was still David Dallas Jones.
In 1955, Player was appointed as acting president when Jones was diagnosed with cancer. Knowing he would not be able to perform his duties, Jones recommended Player to the board of trustees for the president's position at Bennett. In the fall of 1956, Willa Player was inaugurated as the president of Bennett College, the first African-American woman to be selected as president of an accredited, four-year college. In 1957, Player gained accreditation for the college from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
Civil rights movement
In the postwar period, civil rights organizations increased activism to achieve racial justice and exercise of constitutional rights, including integration of public facilities and the ability for blacks to register and vote in the South. Most blacks in North Carolina and other southern states had been disenfranchised since the turn of the century by laws of white-dominated state legislatures. The activism generated resistance and controversy among those who wanted no change in the Jim Crow social order.
Rev. Martin Luther King, leader of the Montgomery Bus Boycott in 1955 and co-founder in 1957 of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference was invited to Greensboro in February 1958 by local African-American clergy and the NAACP. But because of controversy around him, local churches and colleges did not want to host him as a speaker. When Player was asked to host him, she said, "Bennett College is a liberal arts college where 'freedom rings,' so King can speak here". King spoke to an overflow crowd on February 11, 1958 at Annie Merner Pfeiffer Chapel at Bennett. Willa Player encouraged Bennett College women to act their beliefs for civil rights and activism. Initially unaware that Bennett students were planning civil rights protests after King, Howard Thurman and Benjamin E. Mays had spoken at the college, Player encouraged them in their participation in sit-ins to achieve integration of lunch counters. She held meetings with faculty and staff during the Greensboro actions sit-ins to educate them, and arranged to support students in jail by delivering their assignments so they would not fall behind.
In 1962, Player was named President of the National Association of Schools and Colleges of the Methodist Church. She was the first African American to serve on the board of trustees of Ohio Wesleyan. After 36 years of service to Bennett College, Willa Player stepped down as president in 1966.
She was appointed that year by President Lyndon B. Johnson's administration as the first female Director of the Division of College Support in the United States Department of Health, Education and Welfare, a position she held until retiring in 1986.
Professional and civic membership
Player served as a Mott Foundation Trustee from 1981 to 1995 and trustee emeritus from 1995 to 2003. She was a member of Kappa Delta Pi, Pi Lambda Theta, the South Atlantic Regional Philosophy Education Society, North Carolina and National Teachers associations, National Council of Negro Women; Women's Planning Committee, St. Matthews Methodist Church; and Japan International Christian University Foundation, Incorporated.
"The black woman is expected to be a superwoman without acting like one" – Willa B. Player
On the Bennett students' 1960 protest: "We don't teach our students what to think. We teach how to think. If I have to give exams in jail, that's what I'll do. – Willa B. Player
On her presidency at Bennett College: "All I was thinking was I had a job to do."
Death, legacy and honors
Willa Player died August 29, 2003 in Greensboro.
- A Mott Endowed Chair was established in her honor at Bennett College.
- She received several honorary doctorates during her career: Doctor of Laws, Ohio Wesleyan University (1953); Doctor of Laws, Lycoming College (1962); Doctor of Laws, Morehouse College (1963), Doctor of Laws, Albion College (1963); Doctor of Humane Letters, Keuka College (1967); Doctor of Humane Letter, University of North Carolina at Greensboro (1969); Doctor of Public Service, Prairie View A & M University (1971).
- George Alexander Sewell; Margaret L. Dwight (20 January 2012). Mississippi Black History Makers. Univ. Press of Mississippi. pp. 229–. ISBN 978-1-61703-428-2.
- "Dr. Willa Player Named Bennett Vice-President", Jet, 6 November 1952, p. 25, accessed 14 march 2016
- Linda Beatrice Brown (1998). The Long Walk: The Story of the Presidency of Willa B. Player at Bennett College. Bennett College.
- Black Women in America An Historical Encyclopedia Volumes 1 and 2, edited by Darlene Clark Hine, 1993, Carlson Publishing Inc., Brooklyn, New York ISBN 0-926019-61-9
- "Willa B. Player", CRDL, US Department of Education
- "Willa Player Encouraged and Taught Many", African American Registry
- "Willa B. Player", Encyclopedia.com
- October 1955, Holgate Digital Library, Bennett College, 2011
- "Resolution honoring Willa B. Player", March 2005, North Carolina State Legislature
- "Dr. Willa Player Named Bennett Vice-President", Jet, 6 November 1952, p. 25
- "President Willa B. Player was the 75th Anniversary Speaker at Spelman College, The Crisis, May 1956, p. 309 (Collected edition)
- Oct. 30, 195211. "Bennett Sit-In Story", Weebly, Feb. 1, 2010