Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Established 1874.

The Oberlin Review

Johnnetta Cole: National Humanities Medal Recipient, OC ’57

Courtesy of Johnnetta Cole
Johnnetta B. Cole, OC ’57, was the first female African-American president of Spelman College.

Johnnetta B. Cole, OC ’57, is an anthropologist and educator who received the 2021 National Humanities Medal earlier this year. After graduating from Oberlin, where she earned a degree in Sociology, she became the first female African-American president of Spelman College and co-founded the Black Studies program at Washington State University. 

This article has been edited for length and clarity.

You originally attended Fisk University before transferring to Oberlin College. What made you move to continue your studies? 

There’s a very specific reason I went off to Fisk originally. I had pushy Southern Black parents who said to me one day, “You’re going to go downtown and take a test. If you pass it, you will go to the early entrance program at Fisk University.” I was 15 years old, so going off to Fisk was the last thing I wanted to do. But I just went downtown, and rather than checking all the wrong answers — that’s all I had to do to fail the test — I checked the right answers. So I went to Fisk. It was an exceptionally wonderful first semester, especially for a child of social justice activists, because I was at a place where activism was very much what people did. But that January, my father passed away, and it was a profound trauma for me. And so my mom and my sister said, “You’re not doing very well. Why don’t you transfer to Oberlin?” because my sister was at Oberlin majoring in Voice and Piano. So that’s the story of how I got to Oberlin. And once there, I did find my place and graduate. I claim both schools, and very few people can tell the story as passionately as I can. Being at a historically Black university and then going to Oberlin was an experience, due to Oberlin being the first in our nation to welcome African Americans and the first to welcome women to a collegiate experience. It was at Oberlin where I discovered anthropology, which in so many ways became the lens through which I see the world.

In much of your work, you speak to upholding African-American studies and anthropology pedagogy. Can you talk about how those fields had an effect on your accomplishments?

As a part of getting my doctorate in anthropology, my first teaching job was at Washington State University in Pullman, WA. It was there that I was the founding director of one of the first Black Studies programs in the United States. It was a very specific time in American history; I was also highly engaged as an activist in opposition to the war in Vietnam and apartheid and was a part of the Black Power movement. I even went to jail with my students. We did those things to demand there be more Black students on campus, more Black faculty, and a Black Studies program. 

After a number of years at Washington State University, I moved with my family to Amherst, MA, and joined an extraordinary group of scholar-activists in a program at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. In that program, I talked and worked with a multitude of scholars like Shirley Graham Du Bois and John Bracey Jr., and that program still bears the name of W. E. B. Du Bois. There was a time when we invited Chinua Achebe to speak to students. We determined that it was our responsibility to be close to the best in scholarship and the best in social justice activism. And I think we didn’t do a bad job at it. I think it’s so important to expand into African-American studies and to expand what it means to share that knowledge as an education system, especially in the world we live in today. 

You were the first female African-American president of the historically Black Spelman College. Can you talk about what it was like working at that institution? 

I went to Spelman not as a professor, but as the president. And folks rightfully asked why: at an institution founded in 1881 by two righteous white women, Spelman had never had a Black woman president, even though it began as an institution for the education of Black women. The simple and correct answer is patriarchy. The presidency was not what I had on my wishlist. I remember very well returning to my office at Hunter College, where I was a happy professor, and there were two notes on my desk. Some of my main mentors urged me to call them as soon as possible. I connected with my mentors, each of whom said, “You will apply for the presidency of Spelman.” To which I responded, “But I’m a happy professor. Why do I want to do that?” They insisted, and look at what happened. I think there’s a lesson there, and it is, of course, that mentors often see in their mentees what their mentees cannot see in themselves. 

Do you think that your time at Oberlin is what encouraged you to work at Spelman College as the first female African-American president? 

I don’t think there’s any question on how Oberlin pushed me towards eventually working at Spelman College. When I look at my life’s journey, there are clear periods at Oberlin when I was urged to continue social justice and public intellectualism. And while you can go to Oberlin and say, “I don’t give a hoot about the rest of the world,” I didn’t do that. And it’s because of that I have no doubt about the influence of my years at Oberlin. My years at Oberlin helped to solidify what had already been a pattern of public intellectualism and social justice activism. 

You recently received the National Humanities Medal, which is given to individuals who have deepened the nation’s understanding of the humanities and broadened our citizens’ engagement with history, literature, languages, philosophy, and other subjects in the humanities. Can you talk about what it means for you to receive that award? 

It’s more than a notion, and I feel intensely privileged and grateful to have received one of the National Humanities Medals from President Joe Biden. I’m not gonna try to minimize that it was an incredible honor. And when I accepted the award in the company of the other recipients, I have to say some of the joy was just being in that company. I remembered words that my mom used to use, kind of old-fashioned language, when she would say, “A woman’s going to be known by the company she keeps.” And to be in that company was such an honor, standing with those individuals who have done so much not only as scholars but as social justice activists. 

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