Celebrating Dr. Johnnetta Cole, the First Black Woman President of Spelman College


April 11, 2024

She is a true pioneer in academia!

Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole. The name itself evokes a legacy of leadership, scholarship, and a deep commitment to empowering others. A true trailblazer in every sense of the word, Dr. Cole has shattered glass ceilings throughout her career, most notably as the first African American woman to serve as president of Spelman College, the historically Black college (HBCU) for women in Atlanta, Georgia.

Dr. Cole was born in Florida in 1936 and came from a respected family who deeply valued education. At the age of 15, she received early admission to Fisk University, later transferring to Oberlin College in 1957, Spelman.edu reports. She would make a name for herself as a cultural anthropologist, earning her master’s and doctorate in anthropology from Northwestern University. An esteemed professor at several universities, including Hunter College, Washington State, and the University of Massachusetts, Dr. Cole would take the helm at Spelman in 1987. 


During her decade-long tenure, Dr. Cole expanded academic programs, increased international visibility for the college, and fostered a vibrant and supportive community for students. Under her leadership, the College led its most successful capital campaign, raising $113 million for the endowment. Cole also oversaw the establishment of the Spelman College Mentorship Program, the International Affairs Center, and the Office of Community Service. In 1992, Spelman was named the No. 1 regional liberal arts college in the South by U.S. News & World Report. Dr. Cole’s administration also saw Spelman spotlighted on the television screen, “A Different World,” filming on the historic campus and gaining script ideas from students. 

Dr. Cole’s relatability to students and understanding of the unique challenges faced by young Black women pursuing higher education was vital to the success of Spelman. Her leadership created a space where they could thrive academically, discover their voices, and claim their power. Dr. Cole’s impact extends far beyond a single title as an author, recipient of more than 50 honorary degrees, and a pioneering figure in academia. She has served as the Presidential Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Women’s Studies, and African-American Studies at Emory University, the president of Bennett College, the only other HBCU explicitly designed for educating Black women, chair of the Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute in Atlanta and as director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art.

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Recently, Because of Them We Can had the privilege of joining Dr. Cole, during an intimate conversation at the 17th annual Disney Dreamers Academy. Her presence was nothing short of transformative, and as she shared her journey, her triumphs over adversity, and her remarkable successes, the atmosphere in the room shifted. It was more than admiration; it was a palpable wave of inspiration that swept through the audience. Her words resonated deeply, leaving a lasting impression on all who were fortunate enough to be in her presence.

Dr. Cole spoke proudly about her upbringing and her journey from the segregated South to the mountain peaks of scholarship and academia. She encouraged the young people to take bold action on their dreams while acknowledging that she was grateful to be in the space and still contributing to the next generation at 87 years young. 

“I have to express some gratitude. That I am here. That I am here with each of you…it is just a joy to be in a room that looks like the world that I dream of,” said Cole. 


As we celebrate Dr. Johnnetta Cole’s remarkable achievements, let us also reflect on the profound significance of her legacy. Dr. Cole’s sacrifice, resilience, and dedication paved the way for generations. As a result of her determination, daring to dream, and defying the odds, countless young Black women have seen a reflection of their own potential. Her life’s work is a powerful reminder that dreams can become reality with dedication, intelligence, and a relentless pursuit of your passions. 

Dr. Cole, we salute you and stand on the shoulders of giants like you. As your legacy continues to illuminate the path forward, we will take up the mantle and blaze our own trails, remembering that an equitable and limitless future is possible for all. 

Cover photo: Celebrating Dr. Johnnetta Cole, the First Black Woman President of Spelman College/Photo Credit: Dr. Johnnetta Cole/Oberlin Review


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