Black History Month is a time to celebrate the achievements by African Americans and a time to recognize their central role is US history. Leadership Women is honored to highlight the accomplishments of Johnnetta Betsch Cole, a longtime friend and supporter of the organization. She enthusiastically joined the inaugural Leadership America National Advisory Board in 1987, and assisted in the launching of our national program. Throughout her life, Dr. Cole has left her mark as an anthropologist, educator, museum director, college president and friend. Her achievements bountiful, she is a woman of honor, who was told growing up, “doing for others is just the rent you gotta pay for your room on earth.”
Dr. Cole was born on October 19, 1936 in Jacksonville, Florida. And at the age of 15, she enrolled at Fisk University, later transferring to Oberlin College in Ohio where she completed her sociology degree in 1957. Dr. Cole earned her Doctor of Philosophy degree in anthropology, after earning her Master’s of Arts degree at Northwestern University. Her dissertation field research was done in Liberia as part of Northwestern University’s economic survey of the country.
For over twenty years, Dr. Cole taught at some of the most renowned universities, including the UCLA, Washington State University, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, Hunter College and Emory University. At Amherst she was a pivotal figure in their development of an African American Studies program.
In 1987, Johnnetta Cole, Ph.D., became Spelman College’s seventh president and the first Black woman to lead the College that was founded specifically for the education of women of African descent. She would serve as president for 10 years, returning to the classroom as the Presidential Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Women’s Studies and African-American Studies at Emory University. Dr. Cole would later be recruited as president of Bennett College for Women, where she served for five years.
Many Leadership America graduates were fortunate to be a part of Dr. Cole’s tenure at the National Museum of African Art, a Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC, where she hosted many LA classes, inviting them to dine after hours with her and tour the museum. At each dinner she spoke in her long cadence, sharing her amazing life and experiences. She would always challenge each class to serve others and do more. Martha Farmer proudly speaks of her dear friend in saying, “Johnnetta’s fingerprints have been all over the Leadership America program since its inception. Whether hosting class dinners, finding speakers or speaking herself, Johnnetta has embraced the importance of women’s leadership.”
A recipient of countless honorary degrees and awards, Dr. Cole has been recognized for her pubic service, creativity and inspiration. In 2017, she received the Award for Distinguished Service to Museums. In accepting the award she said, “I am incredibly honored to be acknowledged for doing what I am suppose to do.” She continued, “and that is to be of service to others…indeed that is what each of us is called to do.” A long term supporter of women’s equality, she accepted the 2019 Public Leadership Award from the Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota, by saying “when women lead, streams run up hill.”
Johnnetta Betsch Cole’s work is far from over. In 2018, she was elected Chair of the National Council of Negro Women (NCNW), a post she continues to hold today. Her passion for the work of NCNW is centered in her longstanding engagement in the struggle for social justice, a struggle that must include full equality for African American women.