Montgomery Fellow Cole is passionate about anthropology

by Brad Russo | 5/4/98 5:00am

Johnetta Cole, the College's Montgomery Fellow during the month of May, has served as the first African-American woman president of Spelman College and has published several books about cultural anthropology, but she said she still has a lot to learn from Dartmouth students about life in Hanover.

"My goal for the month is to become a member of the community in good standing," Cole said while reclining in a lawn chair on the Montgomery House patio.

She said this is her first time visiting Hanover, but she has family connections to the College through alumnus Arthur Robinson '86.

"I have heard great things about Dartmouth from my husband's son," Cole said. "He loved it here."

Cole assumed the presidency of Spelman, the nation's oldest college for black women, in 1988 and left the college last June.

Cole said she decided to leave Spelman because she believes that one should leave everything at one's pinnacle, and likened her decision to advice a friend's mother once gave her daughter.

"She said, everyone knows when to arrive, but you should always leave when the party's at its best," Cole said.

Cole said that, despite the growing trend toward coeducation, she continues to see a place for historically black and all-female academic institutions.

She said three-fourths of all African Americans with Ph.D degrees received their undergraduate degrees from historically black colleges or universities.

But Cole said that, ultimately, race-specific schools should not be necessary.

"I work for a day when we no longer need them. Our task is to make a place like Dartmouth ... a place that is welcoming of all communities," she said.

Cole spent one year at historically black Fisk University before transferring to Oberlin College.

"I left Fisk when my father died. My world fell apart," Cole said. "I transferred largely to be closer to my sister who was already at the conservatory [at Oberlin]."

Cole said her life long passion of anthropology emerged unexpectedly at Oberlin.

"I signed up for my first anthropology class because it didn't meet too early and it satisfied a social science requirement," she said. "That's the value of a liberal arts education."

Cole followed the advice of her anthropological mentor at Oberlin and went on to receive masters and doctorate degrees from Northwestern University.

"I have never ceased to be amazed by the discipline ... anthropology removes us from our own environment and drops us in the middle of someone else's reality," she said.

Cole said she is very active in community service and is excited to begin working as a mentor to a local child when she returns home to Atlanta.

"On June 1, I will meet my 'little sister' as part of the big brother/big sister program," she said. "I know this little girl is going to teach me more than I will teach her."

Cole and her husband, Arthur Robinson, are also caring for two recent additions to their household. "Art's parents just moved in with us and its going surprisingly well," she said.

Cole said she met her husband when she was only eight years old.

"My parents sent me to D.C. to go to 'better schools' and that's where I met Art," Cole said. "I saw Art off-and-on for awhile, but then 35 years past and I didn't see him."

Cole described how the two were reunited the day she became president of Spelman. "I received a lot of congratulatory calls, one of them from Art ... we are now in our tenth year of marriage."

Cole will be giving her Montgomery speech, "Lines That Divide and Friendships That Bind," on Wednesday.

Cole's visit is made possible by the Montgomery Endowment, a fund established by Mr. and Mrs. Kenneth Montgomery '25 to enable outstanding figures in both the academic and non-academic world to visit the College and interact with students.