Explorations in Black Leadership

Co-Directed by Phyllis Leffler & Julian Bond

Presidency of Spelman

BOND: Well, it's interesting to look back over your life up to becoming president of Spelman and say that everything prepared you for this. If not president of Spelman, president of a university. Everything led towards this. But it could also be just happenstance, fate, kismet, what have you that all of a sudden the opportunity comes, the presidency is open, people say "Oh, Johnnetta Cole, she would be great." So you get there. And I heard you say recently that that while these HBCUs are wonderful places, they are far from perfect. And Spelman is both a wonderful place and it's far from perfect. What did you find?

COLE: Well, first of all, it took me a while to really settle into that this had happened. I mean, by any theoretical reckoning, this was not supposed to happen. My politics, it seemed to me, were far too progressive. I was a divorcee. A self-defined feminist. What was I doing in the presidency of Spelman?

BOND: It was a relatively conservative black women's college --

COLE: A relatively conservative black women's college.

BOND: When I was at Morehouse you couldn't take a Spelman girl out on a date. You had to take her and a friend out on a date.

COLE: There you go. So one of the things that -- I've never quite used this language before, I think Julian, but you have this way of bringing out insights in an interview. I think I realized -- when I finally had to accept: I am the president of Spelman College, even though I have progressive politics, I'm a feminist, blah, blah, blah, blah -- I think it was one of the first times that I really confronted that while I was all of those things, and they sat and moved so comfortably within me, that I also had a gift of presenting both myself and the ideas that I believe in, in both meaningful and non-threatening ways.

BOND: Well, there comes a time later, that I want to get to later, where your politics become a big issue --

COLE: Oh, oh, oh, oh -- let's talk about Cuba and the red baiting --

BOND: We'll come to that. But immediately you're coming to Spelman progressive, divorcee --

COLE: Feminist.

BOND: Feminist. Are these obstacles in any way to your becoming the president of Spelman? Obviously not, because you did.

COLE: I just have to give a praise song to Marian Wright Edelman, who was the chair of the board, and the chair of the search committee. And Marian believed in me. I'm not sure she knew the extent of all that I believed in. But she believed that I would never, ever, ever, ever consciously do harm to her school.

BOND: And she thought that you would be good for her school --

COLE: And she had a vision, that I'm not sure that I had, that I could do wonderful things with and for her school.

BOND: Do you think that she saw, in you, something you didn't see in yourself? And saw you there, in a way that you hadn't seen yourself, there?

COLE: No question.

BOND: How long had you known her? How did you meet her?

COLE: One wasn't an active person in this country without knowing of Marian. And I had interacted maybe here or there, but it was really through the search process that I came to know and more deeply love and respect Marian. And once the appointment happened it was often a struggle. I mean, Marian's life as you know is so focused, so relentlessly dedicated to the Children's Defense Fund, that it finally reached the point where I insisted that we had to have 7:30 am weekly telephone meetings. I mean, she was engaged, but never to the extent that I wanted and needed. I was a new president. I was a novice at this. I hadn't been a dean and a provost and a vice president. And so I was always trying to get more, perhaps out of my own insecurity about the presidency.

BOND: Except for your mother's experience and your year at Fisk, you never had this experience. You'd been at Washington, you'd been at UMass, you had been at Hunter. This is very, very different from those --

COLE: It was very different. And I have thought a lot in retrospect about my mom: registrar, English professor, at Edward Waters. But you know in those days she was so much more my mom than a professor. But I did grow up in many ways on that Edward Waters campus, you know. I would go there to meet my mom. I was aware of it. And I grew up by the way with many, many, many, many, many experiences at Bethune-Cookman. Because we would drive to Bethune-Cookman. My mother had close friends there. Because of the relationship between my great-grandfather and Mary McLeod Bethune. So all of that was a part of my growing up. But I never took myself and placed myself within those contexts. Myself as a professor, but not as a president.