Black History: Special Delivery!!
Dr. Willa Beatrice Player (1917 – 2003) was an African American educator and civil rights, activist. She made history by becoming the first African American woman to lead a four year, fully accredited liberal arts college. Player took the helm as president of Bennett College for Women from 1956-1966.
Born in Jackson, Mississippi in 1909, Player and her family moved to Akron, Ohio in 1917. Throughout her youth, she was actively involved in the United Methodist Church. Player first attended Akron University and later transferred to Ohio Wesleyan University to be with her sister. She graduated from Ohio Wesleyan with a bachelor’s degree and later obtained her Master’s degree from Oberlin College. Following graduation, she was an educator in Akron Public Schools. She was the first African American practice teacher in the Akron school system.
Later in her career, Player was offered a teaching position at Bennett College for Women, a historically black college (HBCU). She taught Latin and French. Early on, she was also appointed as the Director of Religious Activities. She was 21 years old at the time. Player was then appointed as Director of Admissions and also served in the role of Acting Dean. She left Bennett for a time to pursue a Ph.D. at Columbia University which she earned in 1948. Player then returned to Bennett as Coordinator of Instruction. In 1950 she served as the Vice President at Bennett and was then appointed as president of the college in 1956. In 1957, Player led Bennett to successfully achieve accreditation from the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools (SACS).
During her tenure as president, the civil rights movement was at its height. Dr. Player supported Bennett College students who were involved with the sit-in demonstrations in Greensboro to achieve integration. She visited those who were jailed for protesting and arranged for professors to administer tests and hold class for jailed students. As many as 40% of Bennett students were jailed at the height of the civil rights movement. A staunch supporter of the civil rights movement, Player also arranged for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. to speak when no one else would host him in 1958, just after the Montgomery Bus Boycott. King’s speech led female students to form a protest group known as the “Bennett Belles”.
Two years later four students from North Carolina A & T staged a sit-in at Woolworth’s lunch counter in Greensboro, NC. College students from Bennett wanted to do launch a sit-in to protest segregation even before that but college faculty, being afraid for their safety, persuaded them not to do so. Once the sit-in started both Bennett students and faculty members participated. Player elected not to participate in the protests herself so that students would have an advocate who was not jailed and someone that could communicate with parents and family members on behalf of students.
She completed her time as president in 1966. She was then appointed by President Lyndon Johnson’s administration as the first female Director of the Division of College Support for the U.S. Department of Health, Education, and Welfare. In this role, Player was instrumental in directing funding towards historically black colleges and universities through the “Strengthening Developing Institutions” program. She stayed in this role until her retirement in 1986. Other firsts for Player include being appointed as president of the National Association of Schools and Colleges Of The Methodist Church in 1962; the first woman to hold the post. She was also the first woman to serve as a trustee for Ohio Wesleyan University.
In reflecting on the role of black women, Player said, “ The black woman is expected to be a superwoman without acting like one.”
In reflecting on her student’s involvement in the civil rights movement, Player said, “We teach our students how to think, not what to think.”
In reflecting on Player’s impact, former Bennett College president, Dr. Johnetta B. Cole described her as, “…incapable of being ordinary”
Player never married. She said to a friend, “I didn’t have time for men. I was too busy educating the youth.”
Dr. Player died in 2003 at the age of 94 in Greensboro, North Carolina.
More info about the Bennett Belles and Dr. Willa B. Players’ support of the civil rights movement is shared in this news article: