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If you like Johnnetta Cole's story, you might also like:
Rita Dove,
John Hennessy,
Susan Hockfield,
Wendy Kopp,
John Lewis,
Jessye Norman,
John Sexton and
Oprah Winfrey

Johnnetta Cole also appears in the videos:
The Content of Your Character: A Celebration of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.,

Making a Better World: What is Your Responsibility to the Community?

Teachers can find prepared lesson plans featuring Johnnetta Cole in the Achievement Curriculum section:
Justice & Citizenship
Freedom & Justice
Black History Month

Related Links:
National Museum of African Art
Spelman College
Bennett College

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Johnnetta Cole
Johnnetta Cole
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Johnnetta Cole Interview (page: 2 / 5)

Past President of Spelman College

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  Johnnetta Cole

How did you get along with your classmates in school? What were some of your activities in those days?

Johnnetta Cole: I loved school. I thought school was just great stuff. And somehow, I don't remember being teased because I liked school, being isolated, being called a nerd. And I remember now, and remember with a kind of mixed emotion, that I was growing up in the segregated South, going to segregated schools. There was a point when we went to school only half of the day, because the school board in Jacksonville, Florida said that was enough for colored kids. They'd learn all they needed to learn in half a day. I loved school and I think surely a great deal of the explanation must be in the Mrs. Vances of the world. That these were women, rarely men in my early years, who honest to goodness had a revolutionary idea. That every child is educable. That there's no such thing as a child who cannot learn. And so, learning was an activity that one wanted to engage in. Going to school was fun. And I guess, in a sense, I've never given up that passion.

[ Key to Success ] Passion

Johnnetta Cole Interview Photo
Just this last semester at Spelman, I did not teach, as I have traditionally done over the nine years that I've been a president. I didn't teach Introduction to Cultural Anthropology, or Introduction to Women's Studies. I took a course. I actually did all the work. My paper was two days late, but I got a forgiveness from my professor. Mary Catherine Bateson, known by many as the daughter of Margaret Mead, was in residency at Spelman. She taught a course called, Women's Life Histories. I was absolutely ecstatic. Here I was, doing what I loved to do most: learning, challenging ideas, rejecting easy answers, looking for what might be another way to understand.

Dr. Cole, when did you first know that you wanted to be the president of Spelman College?

Johnnetta Cole: I was a very happy professor at Hunter College, where I was teaching anthropology, doing the sorts of things that made me intellectually and personally very happy, when the word came to me that there was an opening for the presidency at a place called Spelman College and I should apply. My first reaction was to fire off the letter that I had fired off to other schools making an inquiry and say, "Thank you very much, I'm honored, but no thank you."

Johnnetta Cole Interview Photo
Then it began to strike me that this was no ordinary school. I talked with two women in particular, each of whom is quite close to me as a mentor, and each of whom I would define, again, as a shero. One, who was then the President of Hunter College, was Donna Shalala, later the Secretary of Health and Human Services. The other, a Spelman graduate, was Marian Wright Edelman, the President of the Children's Defense Fund.

Those were the two women who convinced me that this was no school to turn away from. I cannot ever express to each of them -- and to others who encouraged me -- my gratitude. Because it has been one of the most satisfying and exhausting things that I've ever done in my life.

Being the first African-American women to head the college took courage and strength. Could you tell us what it took to attain that position?

Johnnetta Cole: Ours is a nation that loves the first. We really do relate to the first to do this, and the first to do that. In one way it's very exhilarating. You can almost take yourself too seriously, until you realize that something is probably wrong. Being the first probably says, "Why has it taken so long?"

I pose that question to myself, why, in the 107 years of the history of this historically Black college for women, there had not been an African-American woman president. I asked myself that question and came up with the answer that there were actually many women, many African-American women, who could have done it. Our society had made the mistake of not giving them the chance. And so, what that does is to give you a sense of enormous responsibility. Because what you're really doing is carrying out this job, not just for yourself, but for all of those sisters who were denied the opportunity to do so when they were really quite prepared.

It's been a very special experience. Spelman, an outstanding, small liberal arts college, really belongs not just to the 1,900 women who are there. It belongs not just to African-American women. It really belongs to all women. And what belongs to women, at least in my world view, must belong to men also. So it's a treasure. It's a special place. It's an institution that challenges so many of our myths and absolutely inspires, by what these young women are able to do.

After recognizing the absurdity of a predominantly African-American women's college never having had an African-American woman as president in 100 years, it sounds like perseverance was needed to correct that absurdity.

Johnnetta Cole: It's easy to talk about perseverance. One of the great expressions of my Southern upbringing is that one should stick to a task "like white on rice." Every now and then I experience what this means in real life.

I was asked to give a speech. It was graduation time. And for this particular high school I said, of course I would. The schedule worked. And I went and I sat, waiting for my turn to speak, when I noticed that we were about to hear a song. And one of the graduating seniors stood, a young man went to the piano, and she began her song, and then she broke down, emotionally overtaken. And the audience clapped and she went back to her seat. I was then introduced to speak. And it hit me that I could not go and give that commencement speech, not at that moment. And so, I went to where the young senior sat and I reached out to her and I took her, literally grabbed her and brought her back to that microphone. I put my arms around her and I said, "You've got to try it again." And the young man looked at me as if to say, "This is a little out there, but I'll go along." He began to play and she sang. She was immediately overtaken again by the emotion. And I held her tightly, helped her sing it, encouraged her classmates to join us, and together we got through that song. I went to the microphone and I said, "Well, young graduates, that is your commencement message."

[ Key to Success ] Perseverance

It's about perseverance, it's about not giving up. Of course, I'm a college president, you know I had to give the rest of the commencement address. But I use that example to say that there's probably little in life that matters more than first believing in one's ability to do something, and then having the sheer grit, the sheer determination, the perseverance to carry it through.

Do you recall what that song was?

Johnnetta Cole: Yes. The Wind Beneath My Wings.

What was the reaction of the audience?

Johnnetta Cole Interview Photo
Johnnetta Cole: I don't think I have ever had such an overwhelming reaction to something that I have said or done. And I give a lot of speeches or, as one of my sons says, I'm forever speechifying. It was a very moving moment for all of us. There's a huge file now, of letters from parents, from students who were graduating, from people in the community who simply heard about what was done.

I take those letters not as tribute to something that I did that was so great, but that it touched a deeply human emotion and need: the need to persevere. I'm convinced that, if you look throughout American history at all the folks that we so deeply admire and love, you will not see in a single one of them the absence of perseverance.

At the college, you are affectionately called Sister Prez. I understand you have this name because of your love for your students, considering them daughters, who look up to you as a role model.

Johnnetta Cole: I really do love what I do. It's impossible to love being a college president without loving the students who are there. These are young women, young African-American women, like young women all over the world, struggling to find that set of possibilities that they can soar and touch. But these are young Black women, so they have at least two challenges: a challenge to who they are, based on race, whatever that is, and based on gender.

How can you not love these young women who day after day destroy myths? At Spelman College, 38 percent of these students major in mathematics, biology, chemistry, computer science, and a dual degree program in engineering.

Johnnetta Cole Interview Photo
What does it mean for a young African-American woman to major in physics? It means she rejects some notion that women cannot do science. She is totally unimpressed by ideas that African-Americans are not good at math. How can you not love folk who smash myths that ultimately destroy us all? How can I not love these young sisters, who are so bright, who are off to be doctors, and lawyers, and business folk, and poets, and philosophers, but who also care about folks other than themselves.

Granted, we put a great emphasis at Spelman on community service. But the truth of the matter is, these young women come there already involved in doing for others. They seem to have gotten, in their own family settings, in their schools, in their churches, in the Girls Scouts, in the Y, wherever they've been hanging out, they have gotten this notion. Let me use the words of Elie Wiesel, who said, "Our lives belong not to us alone. They belong to those who need us most."

To see these young, really brilliant, accomplished women spending their time rocking babies in the special pediatric ward of Grady Hospital, or serving up food in a homeless shelter, or tutoring little girls and boys in an after-school program, that to me is to see human beings that you must love.

So, I agree. I feel close to these young women. They are, in many ways, the daughters that I did not have. I count on them. I believe in them, because it really is their generation. It represents the only future that I've got.

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This page last revised on Oct 09, 2006 16:02 EST
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