Dr. Johnnetta Cole is the director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art. She was a pioneer of African-American studies and black women's studies and made history as the first female African-American president of Spelman College, the oldest historically black women's college in the country.
Cole was born in Jacksonville, Florida in 1936. Despite the racism of the segregated South at the time, she was raised in a family of high achievers who were pillars of the black community. Her maternal great-grandfather, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, was Florida's first black millionaire, having cofounded the first insurance firm in the state in 1901. Cole entered Fisk University at the age 15 before transferring to Oberlin where she graduated with a B.A. in anthropology. She went on to receive a masters and a Ph.D. in anthropology from Northwestern University.
Cole began her professional life as a professor at Washington State University, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, Hunter College, and City University before she made history in 1987, when she became the first African-American woman to serve as President of Spelman College. Under Cole’s leadership, Spelman soared. It was named the number one liberal arts college of the South, and Cole helped complete a $113.8 million capital campaign for the school, the largest sum ever raised by an historically black college or university.
Cole repeated her magic at Bennett College for Women, where served as president from 2002 to 2007. At Bennett, she oversaw a $50 million capital campaign, the creation of programs in African Women's Studies and global studies, the establishment of an art gallery and the founding of the Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute.
In her umpteenth act, Cole was named Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African American Art in 2009. She is also a prolific author and editor as well as the recipient of numerous awards and 55 honorary degrees. Among other distinctions, she was the first woman elected to the Board of Coca-Cola Enterprises, served as the chair of the Board of the United Way and was appointed to President Clinton’s Transition Team for Education, Labor, the Arts and Humanities in 1992.