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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

Past President of Spelman College

June 28, 1996
Sun Valley, Idaho

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  Johnnetta Cole

Let me start by asking you about your early years, where you grew up and where you went to school.

Johnnetta Cole: I grew up in Jacksonville, Florida, in the intensely segregated South of the 1940s. I grew up under conditions that fortunately no longer haunt our nation. The end of segregation is something that each of us should never forget. We also need to remember that segregation's end does not mean that bigotry, and hatred, and racism are over.

Johnnetta Cole Interview Photo
But I also grew up in an extraordinarily warm and reaffirming family. It's perhaps because of those dualities that I am who I am today. I think, in part, it's because so much of that larger world said "You are second best," that my folks managed to say to me, "You are the best that you can possibly be and become, if you work at it."

I grew up in the African-American family in Jacksonville. My great-grandfather on my maternal side was Abraham Lincoln Lewis. A.L. Lewis they called him. Talk about an entrepreneur! Talk about a man of vision! In 1901, he had the wisdom, somehow with a group of other African-American men to start a company. As an anthropologist, studying years and years later, I came to understand that what they had actually done was to pull on an old African pattern of having folk pay a little each week, to draw out what was there when the need came. He and his colleagues actually founded the very first insurance company in the state of Florida. Not the first black insurance company, the first insurance company.


Despite the fact that ours was a family of means, there was so much that we could not do. There was a swimming pool across the street that I couldn't go in, it was for white kids. There was a library that bore my great-grandfather's name, the A.L. Lewis colored branch of the public library. But I knew that in the main library there were newer books and more books besides. And so I grew up with this duality, again, of a family that was strong and encouraging, deeply involved in notions of faith, and of community service, but in a society that challenged my worth because of the color of my skin.


I am eternally grateful to my family for teaching me to believe in myself. And to indeed become who I am.

Beside your great-grandfather, what person inspired you most as a young person?

Johnnetta Cole Interview Photo
Johnnetta Cole: My great-grandfather, A.L. Lewis, had a very close friendship with a woman who today I would call one of my sheroes. Her name was Mary McLeod Bethune. A woman who herself came out of conditions of poverty, but who believed in the power of education. She started a school which still exists today, Bethune-Cookman College. I admired her greatly. I used to have the privilege of going to Daytona Beach to see her. When I was a little kid, I think what I loved most were those great hats that she wore. But as time passed, and I learned of her relationship with President Franklin Roosevelt, and with Mrs. Eleanor Roosevelt, I came to see this woman as a giant.

I saw her as a public expression of all that I saw privately in my own mind. I saw a woman of enormous strength, and ability, and compassion, and wisdom. Mary McLeod Bethune said, "One must lift as one climbs." What I saw in her, and what I admired so deeply about my own mom, was this belief. That one has the right to lift oneself up, that aspirations are perfectly normal, to be encouraged. But to soar oneself, with no regard for others, is irresponsibility.

In a way that continues to echo in my own life, I see that the public figure of Mary McLeod Bethune, and the private, the loving, the intimate persona of my own mom, Mary Frances Lewis Betsch, really set what it is that I wanted to become.

You mentioned the library and the value you've always placed on higher education. What book did you read when you were young that inspired you in that library?

Johnnetta Cole Interview Photo
Johnnetta Cole: First, I must tell you that the librarian was my mom's dear friend, Olga Bradham, and I admired her, too. I read anything Olga Bradham put under my eyes. But I do remember having a very early sense that I wanted to read books that were about my folk. I wanted to read books that said in some sense who I was. Reading about Dick and Jane who were white and perfectly happy with their little dog was fine. But to read of things that reflected who I was meant an enormous amount to me.

I was fortunate, I was given books. I was given biographies about Marian Anderson. I learned early in my life that Frederick Douglass had tricked a little white boy into teaching him how to read, and that he went on to write. So African-American history books, no matter where they came from, were the kinds of things that I loved to read very early on, books about the culture of a people who in fact were so old, so ancient, and the source, in a sense, of all humanity.

Do you think those early passions have influenced your career and your present position as President of Spelman College?

Johnnetta Cole: It's always easy to make things go together and say, this is the cause and this is the effect. The truth of the matter is that while I loved to read those sorts of things, I would always say I wanted to be a doctor, a baby doctor. In those days, if you were a girl, somehow you weren't going to be a neurosurgeon, or a vascular cardiologist, you were going to be a baby doctor.

So, although the things that I read were so often about Africa and about African-American people, I was going to be a doctor, until I went off to college. I chose a course one day at Oberlin. It seemed like a perfectly good course. It met at a decent hour. The prof was said to be okay. It would satisfy my social science requirement. I walked into a course that changed my life.


George Eaton Simpson, who I am still in very close touch with, in his 90s, stood up, this tall, lanky, white American man, and he put a record on the record player, started to simulate hyperventilation. Music was playing, which I learned later was the music of Jamaican cults, and he began to hyperventilate in a simulated way, to move to the music and to talk about what were the retentions of African culture in the New World ways of Black folk.

[ Key to Success ] Vision


Well, good-bye medicine, hello anthropology. I had never heard of such a word. What was anthropology? But it was in that extraordinary moment of intellectual excitement that I discovered a field that has become, not just a way that I make a living, but a way that I carry out my life. So, it is tempting to say that the sorts of things that I was hungry to read as a youngster came full circle into the profession of anthropology.

Would you say it was this teacher, George Eaton Simpson, who most inspired you, or challenged you and opened up these new possibilities to you?

Johnnetta Cole: Surely, it was George Eaton Simpson. It was also Milton Yenger at Oberlin, a number of professors. But I inevitably go back to my first grade teacher.


I give Mrs. Vance all the credit. Because, as if it were this moment, I remember my first day in first grade. And Miss Vance (She was called, by her friends, Bunny Vance. Not very tall in stature, but a giant in terms, it seemed to us, of knowledge, and compassion, and wisdom) asked that each of us should say our name. And we began to go around the classroom. And I remember it came to my turn, and I stood up as I had been instructed to do and sort of bowed my head a little and mumbled who I was. And Mrs. Vance came directly in front of me, looked me directly into my eyes and said, "Never, ever again mumble who you are. Stand up, feel good about who you are and speak to the world."

[ Key to Success ] Preparation


We've got to remember the tremendous influence and power of a single teacher, at a given moment, in a child's life. Although I can't say that I have always followed Miss Vance's advice to the tee, I'd like to think that I've tried. And I know that there's a feeling of deep love and gratitude for the influence that she's had on my life. So I pay tribute to those teachers in my early years. Despite our criticism of what's going on in so many areas of public education in our nation, there are still teachers with that wonderful, revolutionary idea that every child is educable.

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