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Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Willa Player

"We don't teach our students what to think. We teach them how to think. If I have to give exams in jail, that's what I'll do." ~ Willa Player

Willa Beatrice Player was born August 9, 1909 in Jackson, Mississippi and moved to Akron Ohio as a child. Few college opportunities were available for African American women at the time but with contacts made through the Methodist church her family was active in, she was able to attend Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio. She graduated in 1929 and earned an MA from Oberlin College the next year. She was immediately hired to teach Latin and French at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina, a women's school also affiliated with the Methodist Church. She did post-graduate work at the University of Grenoble, France under a Fulbright Scholarship, and received her EdD from Columbia University in 1948.

Dr. Player quickly rose in the administration of Bennett, serving as Director of Religious Activities, Director of Admissions, Coordinator of Instruction, Vice President, and in 1956 was named President, becoming the first woman to serve as President of any four-year accredited college in the country. When no other institution in Greensboro was willing to host a speech by Martin Luther King Jr. for fear of retaliation by segregationists, she offered the Bennett facilities, saying, "Bennett College is a liberal arts school where freedom rings." She describes this, as well as a campus visit by Eleanor Roosevelt, in an interview by the Civil Rights Greensboro Oral History Project.

Undated Photograph from
DuBois Archives, UMass Amherst

King's speech may have planted the seed for the sit-ins that followed in February 1960 as North Carolina A&T students protested segregation at Woolworth's lunch counters. Bennett students, faculty and staff joined the protests; at one time about 40% of the Bennett student body was under arrest. While Dr. Player did not encourage students to protest, she supported those who did and were jailed, visiting daily and arranging for professors to hold class for them and give exams.

Dr. Player left Bennett College in 1966 to become Director of Development of College Support for the US Office of Education in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare where she initiated the Strengthening Developing Institutions program to gain financial support for minority schools. After her retirement in 1986 she returned to Akron where she served on many church and educational boards, and was named to the Ohio Women's Hall of Fame.

Dr. Player never married, saying, "I didn't have time for men. I was too busy educating the youth." She died on August 27, 2003 at the age of 94.

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