Johnnetta Betsch was born in Jacksonville, Florida, where her family had long been established as leaders of the black community. At age 15, Johnnetta Betsch entered Fisk University, through the school's early admissions program. She completed her undergraduate degree at Oberlin College and went on to earn a Master's and Ph.D. in anthropology from Northwestern University.
Her first teaching position was at Washington State University, where she was named Outstanding Faculty member of the year. At the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, she became Professor of Anthropology and Afro-American Studies. At the same school, she served for two years as Associate Provost of Undergraduate education. In 1984 she joined the faculty of Hunter College as Professor of Anthropology and Director of the Latin American and Caribbean Studies Program. She retained these positions while serving simultaneously on the graduate faculty of the City University of New York.
In 1987 she made history by becoming the first African-American woman to serve as President of Spelman College. At her inauguration as seventh President of Spelman College, Bill Cosby and his wife Camille made a gift of $20 million to the College, the largest single gift from individuals to any historically black college or university.
In 1996, Money magazine listed Spelman as the number one historically black college, the number one women's college and the number seven college of any kind in the United States. Under Dr. Cole's leadership, the college completed a capital campaign which raised $113.8 million, the largest sum ever raised by a historically black college or university. Johnnetta Cole is the author of two textbooks used in classrooms throughout the United States. Her book, Conversations was published in 1993.
At Bennett College, Dr. Cole founded the Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity & Inclusion Institute. Until 2006, she chaired the Board of Trustees of United Way of America. In recent years, she has advised the Smithsonian Institute on the creation of a National Museum of African American History. In 2009, the Smithsonian selected Johnnetta Cole to serve as director of the National Museum of African Art. She is married to James Staton, Jr.