Willa Player, pioneering college president, dies
By United Methodist News Service
Willa B. Player made a difference. Lives changed because of her.
1958, when other colleges and churches in Greensboro, N.C., would not
let the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. speak in their halls, Player opened
the campus of Bennett College, a United Methodist-related, historically
black, liberal arts college for women.
When the chapel
overflowed, the speech was piped into other campus buildings. An
estimated 2,000 people - some students and many local residents - heard
King that night. From that event, the Greensboro civil rights movement
Player, the first African-American woman to head a
four-year college in the United States, died Aug. 27 in Greensboro,
N.C., at the age of 94. She was president of Bennett from 1955 to 1966,
having joined the school in 1930 as an instructor in the language
department and going on to hold several other leadership positions
there. When she resigned to join the Department of Health, Education and
Welfare, she ended 35 years of service to Bennett.
remembered for hosting King but also for her staunch and unwavering
support of Bennett students who were incarcerated for their efforts to
integrate restaurants, theaters and other local institutions.
sit-ins began two years after King's appearance, with four students
from North Carolina A&T State University. Months earlier, Bennett
women had wanted to stage a similar demonstration, but faculty members
persuaded them to avoid such a confrontation for safety reasons. Once
the demonstrations began, students and faculty joined in and years of
protests ensued. At one time it was reported that as many as 40 percent
of Bennett's students were behind bars.
Player supported the
Bennett Belles, as they were known, visiting jailed students daily to
give encouragement and to make sure they had their homework. She
arranged for instructors to hold classes and exams for the women, and
she also organized efforts to make sure students had such necessities as
toothpaste, toothbrushes and soap throughout their detention. In
addition, she convinced authorities to allow the college nurse to treat
injured students in the jail.
Most of all, perhaps, Player resisted strong pressure from the community to force her students to abandon their activism.
was born in Jackson, Miss., and raised in Akron, Ohio. She earned
degrees from Ohio Wesleyan University and Oberlin College before
receiving her doctorate in education from Columbia University.
1961, she was an education consultant for the Agency for International
Development, working with women educators in Kenya and Nigeria. The
following year, she became the first woman elected president of the
National Association of Colleges and Universities of the Methodist
A Sept. 4 memorial service will be held at the Annie
Merner Pfeiffer Chapel, where King spoke 45 years ago. A funeral is
being planned in Akron, Ohio.
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