Johnnetta B. Cole launched her career as an educator and activist at Washington State University in 1964. While in Pullman, she taught anthropology, helped found the Black Studies Program, and served as the program’s first director. In 1970 she was named Outstanding Faculty Member of the Year. After leaving Pullman, she held a number of teaching and administrative positions at several East Coast schools. In 1987 she became the first African American woman to be president of Spelman College, the country’s oldest college for African American women. In 1992 Cole landed in the national spotlight as a cluster coordinator on President-Elect Bill Clinton’s transition team for education, labor, and the arts and humanities. She later moved to Bennett College for Women, where she is now president emeritus and chair of the board of directors of the Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity and Inclusion Institute.
In December Cole returned to Pullman to deliver the fall 2007 commencement speech. She discussed the value of looking back in order to go forward, and counseled that with education comes the responsibility to be active in one’s community and in society.
During her visit, she sat down with Hannelore Sudermann to do some of her own looking back, reflecting on what she learned at WSU in the 1960s.
I GREW UP in the days of racial segregation, Jim Crow-ism. I grew up fundamentally in the South in a black community. That time in the 1960s in Pullman, Washington, black folk were hard to find. And yet because it was a period of such activism, we began to bring black students and other students of color to WSU.
It was a time of heightened political activism, and I found myself exactly in the middle of all that. At the same time that we were activists, expressing our opposition to the war in Vietnam, to the absence of diversity at WSU, I think we also had a sense of what we wanted in a positive way. I remember very often in the 1960s saying it’s one thing to be against something, but what are you for?
In those days of the ’60s there really was a community that I think stood for wanting a particular way for people to respect each other, to cross the lines of diversity. Someone very important to me in those early days was Elaine Zakarison, who at that time was the head of the YWCA. Her husband, Russell, was a farmer. For me growing up in the South, not having any idea what a wheat farm would look like, to get to know that family was indeed to cross all kinds of lines of difference. We have remained friends over all of these years.
I also remember Al Crosby, a [former history] faculty member here and former [WSU] president Lane Rawlins[, a young member of the economics faculty at the time]. These are individuals that I may not see for years and years, but the connectedness is still there. I’m very proud of some of the students that I worked with at WSU. I think about Ernest Thomas, who everybody called “Stone.” He’s president of a community college now. And Rutledge Dennis, who went on to find a career in sociology. It wasn’t just a time of being in opposition, it was also a time of being very, very clear [about] a dream that we wanted to fulfill.
The coming of more black students had a natural influence on the creation of black studies. As people are present, they want history and herstory to, in some way, reflect who they are. Up until the 1960s, the mid-’60s, the American curriculum, certainly kindergarten through the 12th year and into post-baccalaureate study, was what I like to call grounded in the three W’s. The curriculum was fundamentally Western, it was Womanless, and it was White. And so a movement was afoot, not only to talk and to struggle for civil and human rights in the society at large, but to say that the academy, the university, had a contribution to make. To study not some of the world’s people, but all of the world’s people.
This wasn’t something that the administration just said “Oh, we’ve been sitting here waiting for you to come along, you faculty and students, and just do it.” No. This was about struggle. This was about convincing not just the administration, but the faculty at large, that this had academic merit. That you could not teach white students well if they were only learning about themselves. Clearly the presence of more black students and what was going on in the nation at large contributed to the administration and faculty agreeing to do this.
I don’t have the exact history and herstory straight, but I do know that WSU was one of the first universities in the United states to begin a black studies program. What converged was certainly what was going on in the larger society around issues of civil rights and black power, and what was fermenting on a college campus. As these came together, the point of connection was black studies. It then began to influence the creation of Hispanic studies, of women’s studies, of Asian studies, and Native American studies. I think WSU should be pretty proud of its contribution to all of that.
When I left Pullman I took away a deepened sense of what a college and a university have a responsibility to do. It was my first formal teaching job. It happened at a time when I was able to see so much of the best and so much of the challenge of the academy. I saw that while faculty are trained in the world of the mind and should be open to new ideas . . . sometimes the faculty is the least ready to change.
I was able to see, as I lived in this community, the possibility of what Dr. King described as the “beloved community.” A place where, regardless of the differences of race or gender or religion or class, . . . individuals really could come to respect and to celebrate each other. I was certainly able to see that change can happen.
We were a small group, but we did make change. Yes, we did some things that were sometimes, by the more conservative members of the WSU community, considered radical. I went to jail with my students, for example. While we may have been viewed as a bunch of radical faculty and students, you have to ask yourself, where would the academy be today if we had not spoken up?