Dr Cole’s family were all dedicated to education and the public library where her family resided is named in her grandfather’s honour. She was at first expected to go into the family business but had a precocious intellect and independent spirit and soon expressed her desire to become an Anthropologist. Dr Cole left high school three years early and enrolled at Fisk University in Nashville, Tennessee at the age of 15 through their program for early admissions. Shortly afterwards she transferred to Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, graduating in 1957 with a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology. Dr Cole then completed her Masters degree at Northwestern University in Illinois, and finally obtained her Ph.D in Anthropology at the same institute in 1959. Whilst at the University she met Robert Cole, an Economy student who hailed from a white family in Iowa, whom she wed in 1960.
Dr Cole worked in the field in Liberia, West Africa from 1960 to 1961, accompanied by her husband. She would continue to undertake various studies throughout her career, including studies of households headed by women, the lives of Caribbean women, Cape Verdean culture in the United States, and racial and gender inequality in Cuba, during her educational career. It was her dedication to education which led her to take up teaching positions at various institutions within the United States. For a brief period in 1964 Dr Cole was a teacher at UCLA, then from 1969-70 she worked as Director of the Black Studies program at Pullman campus of Washington State University during which time she was named Outstanding Faculty Member.
From 1970 to 1983 Dr Cole moved to teach anthropology at the University of Massachussetts Amherst, serving as Provost of Undergraduate Education for her final two years. During her time there she co-developed the WEB Du Bois Department of African-American Studies.
From 1983 she directed the Latin American & Caribbean Studies program at Hunter College, part of City University of New York, a public educational facility (subsided by state or national funds). At the same time she taught as Professor of Anthropology and worked on the graduate faculty of City University.
In 1987 Dr Cole was appointed President of Spelman College, the first African-American woman to be appointed to the role. Under her leadership, Spelman College became the highest rated in SAT scores of all historically African-American educational institutions, and in 1992 the college was rated Best College Buy and top regional liberal arts college by the US News & World Report publication. As a result Bill Clinton appointed Dr Spelman to the Education, Labor and Arts & Humanities team as a Cluster Coordinator. She retired from this role in which she was known as “Sister President” in 1997, as President Emirita.
Politically motivated attacks from various right-wing publications led to cessation of her political roles when it was alleged Dr Cole was a pro-Communist, anti-Israel radical and a disciple of Fidel Castro. Evidence put forward to support this allegation consisted of her her work with U.S. Peace Council and the Venceremos Brigade, both organisations having been being linked to the former Soviet Union and to Cuba by the FBI. These allegations deeply hurt Dr Cole and she has been quoted as stating she remained strong and determined to continue to do what she believed was “important work. “
In 1994 Dr Cole became a director of Merck & Co. (a pharmaceutical company known as MSD outside USA and Canada) and is the first woman elected to the board of Coca Cola. She also served as a Director for NationsBank and Home Depot. From 2004 to 2006, Dr Cole served as Chair of the Board of Trustees of United Way of America, a non-profit organisation promotion education, healthy living and financial stability for US citizens. She also served on the Board of Directors of the United Way of Greater Greensboro, North Carolina, and on the board of TransAfrica, partner of the Institute for Policy Studies.
In 1998 Dr Cole became Presidential Distinguished Professor Emerita at Emory University in Druid Hills, Dekalb County, Georgia, where she had previously taught in the anthropology department. She retired from this role in 2001. Dr Cole moved to Bennett College for Women (Greensboro, NC) in 2002 where she was Chair of the The Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity & Inclusion Institute, from which she retired in 2007.
2009 saw Dr Cole named Director of the Smithsonian Institute’s National Museum of African Art, and still occasionally teaches and takes classes at various institutes.
Dr Cole has married three times, to Robert Cole, Public Health Administrator Arthur J. Robinson Jr and is currently wed to James D. Staton, She has three sons with Mr Cole, and one stepson with Mr Staton.
In 2013 Dr Cole was awarded the Alston-Jones International Civil and Human Rights Award by the International Civil Rights Center & Museum in Greensboro, North Carolina. She has also received numerous honorary degrees throughout her distinguished career.
Anthropology for the Eighties: Introductory Readings (1982),
All American Women: Lives that Divide, Ties that Bind (1986),
Anthropology for the Nineties (1988),
Conversations: Straight Talk with America’s Sister President (1993)
Dream the Boldest Dreams: And Other Lessons of Life (1997).
Blog by Tina Price-Johnson