The University of Toledo Commencement

Dr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole

Johnnetta  ColeDr. Johnnetta Betsch Cole was appointed the Director of the Smithsonian National Museum of African Art (NMAfA) in March, 2009. Founded as a small museum on Capitol Hill in 1964, NMAfA became a part of the Smithsonian Institution in 1979, and in 1987 it moved to its current location on the National Mall. The museum’s collection of over 12,000 objects represents nearly every area of the continent of Africa and contains a variety of media and art forms. The National Museum of African Art also has an extensive education program. Since the mid-1980’s, Dr. Cole has worked with a number of Smithsonian programs. She currently serves on the Scholarly Advisory Board for the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, the construction of which will be completed on the National Mall by 2016.

Before assuming her current position, Johnnetta 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, community service and consultations with corporations and not-for-profit organizations she consistently addresses 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 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. 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 the President of the board of the Association of Art Museum Directors (AAMD). She is a fellow of the American Anthropological Association and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. She serves on the board of Gregory University, in Uturu, Nigeria. Dr. Cole is also a member of the Toni Morrison Society.

Johnnetta Cole has been awarded 68 honorary degrees and she is the recipient of numerous awards, including the TransAfrica Forum Global Public Service Awards; 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 Straight for Equality award from Parents, Families and Friends of Gays and Lesbians (PFLAG); the John W. Gardner leadership Award from Independent Sector; the Lenore and George W. Romney Citizen Volunteer Award from the 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, in 2011 Washingtonian Magazine listed her among Washington, DC’s most powerful women and in 2015 BET (Black Entertainment Television) awarded her the BET Honors award for education.

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 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 is on the Advisory Committee of America’s Promise and Points of Light Foundation. She 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 grand children. Dr. Cole is also a mentor to many young women and men.

Photo credit: Jessica Suworoff, National Museum of African Art, Smithsonian Institution

Last Updated: 6/27/22