Celebrating Black History

Honoring Contemporary Black Women

College Presidents





Hazel R. O’Leary, J.D.

Hazel Reid O’Leary (born May 17, 1937) was the seventh United States Secretary of Energy, from 1993 to 1997, appointed by President Bill Clinton. As of 2012, she is the first and only woman and first and only African American to hold the position. She served as president of Fisk University, a historically black college (HBCU), from 2004 to 2012.

Born Hazel Reid in Newport News, Virginia, to Dr. Russell E. and Dr. Hazel Palleman Reid. After earning a bachelor’s degree at Fisk University in Nashville, O’Leary earned her Juris Doctor (J.D.) degree from Rutgers School of Law. O’Leary is a member of Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority. 


Ruth Simmons

Ruth J. Simmons, Ph.D. 

Ruth Simmons (born Ruth Jean Stubblefield; (July 3, 1945) was the 18th president of Brown University, the first black president of an Ivy League institution. Simmons was elected Brown’s first female president in November 2000. Simmons assumed office in fall of 2001. Simmons holds appointments as a professor in the Departments of Comparative Literature and Africana Studies. In 2002, Newsweek selected her as a Ms. Woman of the Year, while in 2001, Time named her as America’s best college president. According to a March 2009 poll by The Brown Daily Herald, Simmons had more than an 80% approval rating among Brown undergraduates.

On September 15, 2011, President Simmons announced that she planned to step down from the Brown presidency at the end of the academic year, June 30, 2012. After a short leave, she plans to continue at Brown as Professor of Comparative Literature and Africana Studies.

Simmons was born in Grapeland, Texas, the last of 12 children of Fanny (née Campbell) and Isaac Stubblefield. Her father was a sharecropper until the family moved to Houston during her school years. Her paternal grandfather descends partly from Benza and Kota people slaves from Gabon. She earned her bachelor’s degree, on scholarship, from Dillard University in New Orleans, Louisiana, in 1967. She went on to earn her master’s and doctorate in Romance literature from Harvard University in 1970 and 1973, respectively.

Simmons’s first positions in academic administration were at the University of Southern California, starting in 1979 as assistant dean of graduate studies, and then as associate dean of graduate studies. She was a professor of Romance languages and became a dean at Princeton University from 1983 to 1990. She served as provost at Spelman College from 1990 to 1992. 

In 1995 Simmons became the first African-American woman to head a major college or university when she was selected as president of Smith College, which she led until 2001. As president of Smith College, Simmons started the engineering program.

Ruth Simmons became president of Brown in 2001. At Brown, she completed an ambitious $1.4 billion initiative – the largest in Brown’s history – known as Boldly Brown: The Campaign for Academic Enrichment in order to enhance Brown’s academic programs. In 2005, President Simmons earned enough confidence in her leadership of Brown to motivate philanthropist and former Brown student Sidney E. Frank to make the largest aggregate monetary contribution to Brown in its entire history in the amount of $120 million.

In September 2011, Simmons announced that she would step down from her position as Brown President at the end of the 2011-12 academic year, remaining at Brown as a professor of comparative literature and Africana studies.


Dr. J Cole



Johnetta B. Cole, Ph.D.

Johnnetta Betsch Cole (born October 19, 1936) is an American anthropologist, educator and museum director. Cole was the first African-American female president of Spelman College, a historically black college, serving from 1987 to 1997. She was president of Bennett College from 2002 to 2007.

Since 2009, she has been Director of the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of African Art, located in Washington, DC. In 2013, the Winston-Salem Chronicle described Cole as a distinguished educator, cultural anthropologist, and humanitarian.

Johnnetta Betsch was born in Jacksonville, Florida, in 1936. She is a granddaughter of Florida’s first black millionaire Abraham Lincoln Lewis and Mary Kingsley Sammis. Sammis’ great-grandparents were Zephaniah Kingsley, a slave trader and slave owner, and his wife and former slave Anna Madgigine Jai, originally from present-day Senegal. Her Fort George Island home is protected as Kingsley Plantation, a National Historic Landmark.

Cole enrolled at age 15 in Fisk University, a historically black college. She transferred to Oberlin College in Ohio, where she completed a B.A. in anthropology in 1957. She did field research in Liberia, West Africa, in 1960-61. She attended graduate school at Northwestern University, earning her master’s (1959) and Ph.D. (1967) in anthropology.

In 1987, Cole was selected as the first black female president of Spelman College, a prestigious historically black college for women. She served until 1997, building up their endowment through a $113 million capital campaign, attracting significantly higher enrollment as students increased, and overall raising the ranking of the school among the best liberal arts schools went up. Bill and Camille Cosby contributed $20 million to the capital campaign.

After teaching at Emory University, she was recruited as president of Bennett College for Women, also a historically black college for women. There she led another successful capital campaign. In addition, she founded an art gallery to contribute to the college’s culture. Cole is currently the Chair of the The Johnnetta B. Cole Global Diversity & Inclusion Institute founded at Bennett College for Women. She is a member of Delta Sigma Theta sorority.

In 2009 Cole was named as Director of the National Museum of African Art, part of the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, DC.

This is part 1 of a 2 part series.
I hope you’re enjoying this list.
Disclaimer: This list is NOT an exhaustive list of women in any of the professions that I am highlighting. Yes, I am focusing on contemporary African American women. No, I am not ATTEMPTING to exclude women not born within the U.S. I AM excluding them. I would like this list to focus solely on women born within the United States or spent an significant period of their childhood on U.S. soil. I’m certain that I will create an all inclusive list in the near future. Hear me out: There are A LOT of women. I can’t do everyone. IT’S IMPOSSIBLE. Thus, I created a filter to reduce the list. It’s not to discredit any of the struggles or barriers that women of African heritage not born in the U.S. encounter, it just make the list a bit more feasible for me.
I’m glad that a lot of you all are reading this and providing feedback. It’s a personal project. It’s a learning experience. It’s not perfect.


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