2014 Storyteller of the Year Emerita Awardee

Spelman College and Bennett College for Women President Emerita
Fisk University Alumna


Before assuming her current position as director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (NMAfA), Johnnetta B. Cole had a long and distinguished career as an educator and humanitarian. Through her work as a college president, university professor and through her published works, speeches and community service she has consistently addressed racial, gender, and all other forms of inequality.

Dr. Cole served as president of Spelman College and Bennett College for Women. She is the only person to have served as president of these two historically Black colleges for women in the United States. She is also Professor Emerita of Emory University from which she retired as Presidential Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Women’s Studies and African American Studies.

After one year in an early entrance program at Fisk University and completing her undergraduate studies at Oberlin College, Johnnetta B. Cole earned a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in anthropology from Northwestern University with a focus on African Studies. Dr. Cole made history in 1987 when she became the first African American woman to serve as president of Spelman College. At her inauguration, Drs. Bill and Camille Cosby donated 20 million dollars to the college; and during her presidency, Spelman was named the number one liberal arts college of the South. During her presidency at Bennett College for Women, an art gallery was opened and programs were initiated in women’s studies and global studies.

Dr. Cole has conducted research in Africa, the Caribbean and the United States, and she has authored and edited several books and scores of scholarly articles. She is a fellow of the American Anthropological Association and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She is a member of the Board of Trustees of the American Association of Art Museum Directors and Gregory University, in Uturu, Nigeria. She is also a member of the Toni Morrison Society.

Johnnetta Cole has been awarded 61 honorary degrees and she is the recipient of numerous awards, including the TransAfrica Forum Global Public Service Award, the Radcliffe Medal, the Eleanor Roosevelt Val-Kill Medal, the Alexis de Tocqueville Award for Community Service from United Way of America, the Joseph Prize for Human Rights presented by the Anti-Defamation League, the Uncommon Height Award from the National Council of Negro Women, the John W. Gardner leadership Award from Independent Sector, the Lenore and George W. Romney Citizen Volunteer Award from Points of Light Foundation, the George Washington Carver award, the Benjamin Franklin Creativity Laureate Award, and the Alston-Jones International Civil and Human Rights Award. In 2010, Ebony Magazine listed her among the 100 most influential African Americans, and in 2011 Washingtonian Magazine listed her among Washington, DC’s most powerful women.

On December 8, 2012, in Uturu, Nigeria, an Igbo Chieftaincy title of ADAOHA (Daughter of All) was conferred on Dr. Cole by His Royal Highness as Eze Cyril Ibe, EzeOgbonnaya Uwadiegwu and Eze Chimezie.

From 2004 to 2006, Dr. Cole was the Chair of the Board of United Way of America, the first African American to serve in that position. She has served on the corporate boards of Home Depot, Merck and Nation’s Bank South. She was the first woman to serve on the board of Coca-Cola Enterprises.

Dr. Cole currently chairs the board of the National Visionary Leadership Project and she is on the board of KaBOOM! She is on the Advisory Committee of America’s Promise and Points of Light Foundation. Dr. Cole is a member of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., The Links, Inc., and the National Council of Negro Women.

Dr. Cole is married to James D. Staton Jr. She is the mother of three sons and one step-son, and she has three grandchildren. Dr. Cole is also a mentor to many young women and men.

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