Born in Jackson, Mississippi, on 9 August 1909, Willa Beatrice Player became the first African American female president of a four-year institution in the nation. Player moved to Akron, Ohio, in 1917 with her family. She attended Ohio Wesleyan College and went on to earn a master’s from Oberlin College before being hired to teach Latin and French at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. While teaching at Bennett, Player continued her studies, earning a doctoral degree in education from Columbia University in 1948. In 1956 she became president of Bennett College.
In 1958, just after the Montgomery Bus Boycott, Player and Bennett College were approached to host Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in a speaking engagement. Though many institutions in the area were also approached, only Player agreed to host the civil rights leader. King’s speech led students at the historically black women’s college to form a protest group, the Bennett Belles. Managing a difficult relationship between faculty and the young female activists, Player fully supported her students and their commitment to civil rights. She continued to back the Bennett Belles after they were arrested and jailed, bringing them food and blankets and holding classes at the jail. Player chose not to participate in the protests so that the student activists would have an advocate who was not inside the jail. She also communicated with the students’ parents.
She left Bennett College in 1966 and became an administrator with the US Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (later the Department of Health and Human Services). During Richard Nixon’s presidency, Player served as the director for the Department of Institutional Development, Bureau of Postsecondary Education in the Office of Education. She retired in 1986 and died on 27 August 2003.
- African American Registry website, www.aaregistry.org; Margaret L. Dwight and George A. Sewell, Mississippi Black History Makers (1984)
- Greensboro Sit-Ins: Launch of a Civil Rights Movement website, www.sitins.com
- Darlene Clark Hine, ed., Black Women in America: An Historical Encyclopedia (2005)
- Willa Player, interview by Eugene Pfaff (3 December 1979), Civil Rights Digital Library website, crdl.usg.edu