News Archives

Willa Player, pioneering college president, dies


By United Methodist News Service

Willa B. Player made a difference. Lives changed because of her.

In 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 grew.

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.

She is 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.

The 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.

Player 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.

In 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 Church.

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.

Back : News Archives 2003 Main

Contact Us

This will not reach a local church, district or conference office. InfoServ* staff will answer your question, or direct it to someone who can provide information and/or resources.


*InfoServ ( about ) is a ministry of United Methodist Communications located in Nashville, Tennessee, USA. 1-800-251-8140

Not receiving a reply?
Your Spam Blocker might not recognize our email address. Add to your list of approved senders.