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Historical Spelman

Johnnetta B. Cole, Ph.D.

In 1987, Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole became Spelman College's seventh president and the first Black woman to lead the College that was founded specifically for the education of Black women. A dynamic leader, Dr. Cole led the College during a time of heighten visibility as the school's rankings and endowment increased.

Born in 1936 in Florida, Dr. Cole started her higher-education at the young age of 15 with early admission to Fisk University. She would later transfer and graduate from Oberlin College in 1957. She earned her master's and doctorate degrees in anthropology from Northwestern University in 1959 and 1967 respectively. She held teaching positions at several schools including Washington State University; the University of Massachusetts at Amherst; and Hunter College where she was professor of anthropology and director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program until her departure in 1987 when she took the helm of Spelman College.

After a decade of service to Spelman, Dr. Cole remained in Atlanta while returning to the classroom at Emory University as the Presidential Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Women's Studies and African-American Studies. In 2002, she became the president of Bennett College in North Carolina, the only other HBCU dedicated  to educate Black women. She retired in 2007 and continued to serve as chair of the Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute in Atlanta. In 2009, she was named director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art, a position she currently holds.

The recipient of more than 50 honorary degrees and numerous accolades, Dr. Cole has  served on many boards including Home Depot and Merck.  In 2004, Dr. Cole became the first African-American chair of the board of United Way of America. During her Spelman presidency, she was the first woman elected to serve on the board of Coca-Cola Enterprises. She currently chairs the board of the National Visionary Leadership Project and is on the Advisory Committee of America's Promise and the Points of Light Foundation. Dr. Cole is married to James D. Staton Jr., and has three sons, one step-son, and three grand children.

Historical Highlights During Dr. Cole's Administration

  • In 1987, Drs. William (Bill) and Camille Cosby announced their gift of $20 million for the construction of the Camille Olivia Hanks Cosby, Ed.D. Academic Center, which houses the Spelman Museum of Fine Art – both opened in 1996.
  • Up to that time, she lead the College's most successful capital campaign, "The Spelman Campaign: Initiatives for the 90s," which raised $113.8 million for the endowment. In 1992, the College announced the receipt of $37 million from the DeWitt Wallace/Readers Digest Fund – the largest gift ever given to a historically Black college. The campaign brought Spelman's endowment to $141 million, the largest of any historically Black college or university.
  • Several centers and programs were established under Dr. Cole's administration including the Spelman College Mentorship Program, the International Affairs Center, and the Office of Community Service. In 1991, two years after its launch, the Community Service Program was designated White House Point of Light #563. In 1993, the College received a $4 million endowment from the Bonner Foundation to establish the Bonner Scholars Community Service Program, the first at an HBCU.
  • Spelman soared to the top of several high-powered rankings including being named the No. 1 regional liberal arts college in the South by U.S. News & World Report in 1992. In 1994, the Association of Medical Colleges ranked Spelman No. 5 among undergraduate programs for Black students accepted to medical school, and Spelman made the Top 10 list of best college buys in Money Guide magazine's "Best College Buys Now"; and in 1995, Spelman was one of six institutions designated by the National Science Foundation and NASA as a Model Institution for Excellence in undergraduate science and math education.
  • In 1992, Spelman was thrust into the TV spotlight when producers from Bill Cosby's "A Different World" visited campus to speak with students about script ideas for the fall season of the TV show, which eventually lead to filming on campus.
  • In 1989, the Living & Learning Center II was erected and was dedicated the Johnnetta Betch Cole Living & Learning Center in her honor on her 70th birthday Oct. 19,2005.
  • Dr. Cole is an author of numerous books including All American Women: Lines That Divide,Ties That Bind (ed.) 1986; Anthropology for the Ninties (ed.) 1988; Conversations: Straight Talk with America’s Sister President (1994); Dream the Boldest Dream and Other Lessons of Life (2001); and Gender Talk – the Struggle for Women’s Equality in African American’s Communities (2003).