Distinguished anthropologist and educator Johnnetta B. Cole ’57 was one of 12 recipients of the 2021 National Humanities Medal. Cole received the honor from President Joe Biden in a March 21 ceremony at the White House.
The National Humanities Medal “honors an individual or organization whose work has deepened the nation’s understanding of the human experience, broadened citizens’ engagement with history or literature, or helped preserve and expand Americans’ access to cultural resources,” the White House noted in a press release, adding that Cole was awarded because her “pioneering work about the ongoing contributions of Afro-Latin, Caribbean, and African communities has advanced American understanding of Black culture and the necessity and power of racial inclusion in our nation.”
Born in Jacksonville, Florida, Cole enrolled at Fisk College at age 15, but transferred to Oberlin a year later, joining her sister, music student MaVynee Betsch ’55. A cultural anthropology class ultimately sparked a career change—initially she wanted to be a pediatrician—and steered the rest of her professional life.
After graduating with a degree in sociology, Cole went on to earn master’s and doctoral degrees in anthropology from Northwestern University, making her one of the first Black women to earn a PhD in the field. She taught at Washington State University, the University of Massachusetts Amherst, and Hunter College in New York City.
In 1987, Cole became the first Black woman to serve as president of Spelman College, a historically black, all-female college in Atlanta. She later assumed the role of Presidential Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Women’s Studies, and African American Studies at Emory University before becoming president of Bennett College in 2002.
In 2009, she became director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African Art. “To bring the experience of art into one’s life,” she said in her White House profile for the National Humanities Medal, “is to become entangled in, maybe to fall in love with, human creativity.”
“It was here at Oberlin that I fully encountered the magic of a liberal arts curriculum.” —Johnnetta B. Cole, 1994
Cole received an honorary degree from Oberlin in 1995. One year earlier, she gave an address at the annual dinner of the Friends of the Oberlin College Library, where she noted the vital role libraries have played in her life and described “the Oberlin that touched who I was as a 16-year-old African American kid from the intensely Jim Crow South.” Her words on that occasion included the following:
“It was here at Oberlin that I fully encountered the magic of a liberal arts curriculum. It was here that I came to understand the difference between balance and neutrality; the importance of focus on an issue as opposed to tunnel vision. It was here at Oberlin that I developed sharp powers of reasoning and analysis; and I was taught how to reach conclusions without closing my mind to other information and different possibilities.”
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