Johnnetta Cole was born in Jacksonville, Florida, where her family had long been established as leaders of the Black community. At age 15, Johnnetta Cole entered Fisk University through the school's early admissions program. She completed her undergraduate degree at Oberlin College and went on to earn a Master's and Ph.D. in anthropology from Northwestern University.
In 1987, Dr. Cole made history by becoming the first African-American woman to serve as President of Spelman College. At her inauguration as seventh President of Spelman College, Bill Cosby and his wife Camille made a gift of $20 million to the College, the largest single gift from individuals to any historically Black college or university.
From the year Dr. Cole took office, Spelman's freshman classes had among the highest SAT averages of any of the historically Black colleges or universities. In 1992, the magazine U.S. News and World Report gave Spelman a coveted number-one rating in its annual survey of "Best College Buys." The same issue ranked Spelman the number one regional liberal arts college in the South. In that same year, Johnnetta Cole was named to President-Elect Bill Clinton's transition team as Cluster Coordinator for Education, Labor, and the Arts and Humanities. In this sensitive role she became a target for opponents of the new administration.
In 1996, Money magazine listed Spelman as the number one historically Black college, the number one women's college and the number seven college of any kind in the United States. Under Dr. Cole's leadership, the college completed a capital campaign, which raised $113.8 million, the largest sum ever raised by a historically Black college or university.
In addition to her academic duties, Dr. Johnnetta Cole has served on the board of Directors of Home Depot, Merck & Co., Inc., and NationsBank South and was the first woman ever elected to the Board of Coca-Cola Enterprises. After ten outstanding years as President of Spelman, Cole returned to teaching in 1998, as Presidential Distinguished Professor of Anthropology, Women's Studies, and African-American Studies at Emory University. In 2002, "Sister President," as Cole had become known, became the 14th President of Bennett College.
Johnnetta B. Cole is the author of several textbooks used in classrooms throughout the United States. In addition to many scholarly articles and a regular column in McCall's magazine, she is author of "Anthropology for the Eighties: Introductory Readings," "All American Women: Lives that Divide," "Ties that Bind," "Anthropology for the Nineties." and "Conversations: Straight Talk with America's Sister President."
Johnnetta Cole is married to Arthur J. Robinson, Jr. They make their home in Atlanta, Georgia.