2011 Laureate Prize Winner

Johnnetta B. Cole

2011 Benjamin Franklin Creativity Laureate in the Humanities and Arts

Johnnetta B. Cole has had a rich and varied career as an anthropologist, author and educator.  Cole’s work in academia and anthropology, and her published work span over four decades and reflect a deep and abiding commitment to racial and gender equality that is rooted in her upbringing.  As a pioneer and role model for African American women, Cole gained national prominence in1987 when she became the first black woman president of Spelman College, the country’s oldest historically black women’s university.

Cole grew up in the segregated South of the 1940’s where her family had long been established as leaders of the black community. A great-grandfather, Abraham Lincoln Lewis, co-founded the first insurance company in Florida and the colored branch of the public library bore his name.  Each parent attended college, and it was understood that Cole and her siblings would also. From an early age Cole had a passion for reading.  The librarian at Cole’s local library fed her passion by giving her biographies and African-American history books. These books were a source of enormous gratification to Cole as she saw in them a reflection of herself.  While Cole’s family was one of means, there was still much she could not do because of the color of her skin.  It was her strong, warm and supportive family that instilled in her a deep sense of pride in her heritage and a love of learning. They taught her to believe in herself and that it was normal to have aspirations.  Cole credits her family with the person she is today.

Camilla Cosby with Johnnetta B. Cole

Camilla Cosby with Johnnetta B. Cole

Cole’s love of learning landed her at Fisk University at the age of fifteen.  While her stay was brief, it was at Fisk that Cole saw intellectual endeavors far different from what she experienced in Jacksonville. She transferred to Oberlin after one year and focused on a career in medicine.  However, all that changed when in an anthropology class taken to fulfill a social science requirement, a professor sparked an intellectual excitement that opened up new possibilities in how Cole would earn a living and conduct her life.  After earning a PH.D at Northwestern University Cole conducted anthropological field studies in Liberian villages and completed her dissertation “Traditional and Wage Earning Labor in Liberia.”  Academic positions in African–American Studies, anthropology, and Latin American and Caribbean Studies followed as well as continuing field work that included studies of households headed by women, the lives of Caribbean women, Cape Verdean culture in the Untied States, and racial and gender inequality in Cuba.

In 1987 Cole’s career took a notable step when she was appointed the president of Spelman College.  At Spelman Cole spearheaded a capital campaign, which raised $113.8 million, $20 million of which came from Bill and Camille Cosby, and helped create an environment where African American women were affirmed and taught they could do anything they sought to do. During Cole’s tenure attendance soared andSpelman’s ranking as a liberal arts school went up.

Camilla Cosby and Johnnetta B. Cole with the 2011 Legacy Winners: Patricia Compas-Markman, Shalini Pammal, Nathan Maris,, Maritsa Hristova, and Keiry Benitez

Camilla Cosby and Johnnetta B. Cole with the 2011 Legacy Winners: Patricia Compas-Markman, Shalini Pammal, Nathan Maris,, Maritsa Hristova, and Keiry Benitez

After leaving Spelman Colege in 1997 Cole spent three years at Emory University as a Presidential Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Women’s Studies, and African American Studies.  In 2002 Cole was appointed president of Bennett College for Women, another historically black college for women.  Under her leadership she oversaw a $50 million campaign, established an art gallery and created programs in African Women’s Studies and global studies.  While at Bennett Cole founded the Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity and Inclusion Institutewhose mission is to create, communicate and continuously support the compelling case for diversity and inclusion in the workplace through education, training, research and publications.

In addition to Cole’s accomplishments in academia she has distinguished herself with several published writings includingConversations: Straight Talk with America’s Sister President, Dream the Boldest Dreams: And Other Lessons of Life, and Gender Talk: The Struggle for Women’s Equality in African American Communities.  She has been the recipient of numerous honorary degrees from colleges and universities that include Smith, Princeton, Yale, and Fisk and she has served as the Chair of the United Way, and on President Clinton’s Transition Team for Education, Labor, the Arts and Humanities. 

Cole’s passion and expertise in anthropology, art and education made her an ideal choice to lead the Smithsonian Museum of African Art where she currently oversees a collection of over 9000 objects in the only national museum in the United States committed to the collection, exhibition, conservation and study of the arts of Africa.