Citation for Johnnetta Cole

Johnnetta Cole. Educator and anthropologist. Mentor and humanitarian. Star of a brilliant career. Opting, at every turn, to shape a life that matters.

For you, growing up in the segregated south proved a lesson, not a limit. Even from the youngest age, the prevailing messages of “no you can’t” simply didn’t apply. At just 15 you entered Fisk University, completed your B.A. at Oberlin, and headed to Northwestern University for a masters and Ph.D. in anthropology. In 1964, you took your expertise to Washington State University. There, you protested alongside your students and cofounded one of the country’s first black studies programs before going on to teach at The University of Massachusetts Amherst, Hunter College, and Emory.

At a defining moment in 1987, you were named president of Spelman College—the first black woman, at this historically black college for women, to hold the job in 107 years. With you at the helm, the endowment grew along with enrollment and ranking, as you deepened your devotion to the liberal arts. You also served as president of Bennett College for Women, and their Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute proudly bears your name.

In all, you gave 45 years to academia—teaching, leading, and changing the landscape. But rather than retire, you continued to aim high, becoming Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art in 2009. Once again, you took the very top seat in a field where space at the top for women and minorities has not been the norm. You rose above self-doubt, embraced your love of art, and made the job your own, bringing the museum broader recognition and affirming the creativity of humanity in the process.

We are far from the first to honor you, but our gratitude and awe are all the greater. You are a singular force—in your service to art and education, and in your resolve to shine a light on injustice. Today, Dr. Cole, your colleagues in academia and these fine graduates who, like you, have used their voices for change, humbly award you the 2017 Barnard Medal of Distinction, along with our deepest thanks.