Diversity Woman Magazine

WIN 2017

Leadership and Executive Development for women of all races, cultures and backgrounds

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34 D I V E R S I T Y W O M A N W i n t e r 2 0 1 7 d i v e r s i t y w o m a n . c o m "Life's most persistent and urgent question is, 'what are you doing for others?'" — Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. D r. Johnnetta B. Cole, the director of the Smith- sonian National Museum of African Art, grew up in a prosperous African American family in Jacksonville, Florida. Her great-grandfather was the state's first black millionaire. Her fa- ther was a successful insurance executive and her mother an English professor at a nearby black college. When Cole was young, every so often one of the big depart- ment stores in downtown Jacksonville would call Cole's mother and tell her to bring Johnnetta and her sister to the store because a new shipment of dresses had arrived. ere was a catch—they had to come after the store had closed. "Because of who my family was, we were given this privilege that we were allowed to even try on the dresses," says Cole, who turned 80 this past fall. "But even we couldn't do it in the light of day." When Cole was in middle school, she rebelled and told her mother, "I don't want a new dress. If I can't try it on in the light of day, I want to stop having to try it on in the darkness of night." Cole has spent her long and illustrious career proudly living and working in the light of day. As a teacher, a professor, the president of the only two historically black colleges for women (Spelman and Bennett), and now as the director of the National Museum of African Art, she has dedicated her life to bringing others—especially those from marginalized communities—out of the shadows. Her family may have been affluent, but that provided little buffer living in the Deep South in the Jim Crow era. "I didn't have to go to the back of the bus," she says. "I was always driven around in a private car. But when I got out of that car, or even while in it, I ran into the horrific expressions of racial discrimination around me." Her family, she says, distilled in her a set of bedrock values. One of those values, although it didn't have a name at the time, was gender equity, which played out in ways large and small. Her mother was a college professor—and her father was a better cook than her mother. It was her father, not her mother or her sister, who would braid her hair. "He was gentler," explains Cole. Cole considers her parents and her great-grandfather Abraham Lincoln Lewis her role models. From her great-grandfather she learned that with privilege and access came great responsibility. "What you give ought to be in direct relationship to what you've received," she says. "If you have been blessed with a great deal, then you have a lot of giving to do." Another role model was Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, the found- er of the historically black Bethune-Cookman University in Day- tona Beach, Florida. e 15th child of former slaves, she was a renowned educator and fighter for civil rights and advisor to Pres- ident Franklin Delano Roosevelt on civil and human rights issues. e African American aristocracy in Florida formed a tight-knit community, Cole's family and the McLeods were close, and Cole had an ongoing relationship with Bethune until her death in 1955. Cole left home to attend Fisk University in Nashville at the age of 15. She transferred to Oberlin College in Ohio, one of the first white universities to enroll black students, a practice dating back to its founding in 1833. She studied under another mentor, Left to right: Dr. Cole and actress Cicely Tyson; Dr. Cole at the Diversity Women's Business Leadership Conference; Dr. Cole with Caroline Wanga, Target's vice president of diversity & inclusion. PHOTOGRAPHY BY FABIOCAMARASTUDIOS.COM

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