Willa Beatrice Player, the first black woman to run a four-year college in the U.S., died on Aug. 27. Cause of death was not released. She was 94.
Born in Mississippi, Player earned a bachelor’s degree from Ohio Wesleyan University, a master’s from Oberlin College and a doctorate in education from Columbia University. When she was only 21, Player was hired to teach Latin and French at Bennett College, a private Methodist school for black women in Greensboro, N.C. After working for the school for 26 years, Player was promoted to president, a position she held for a decade.
Two years after she was tapped to run the school, Player organized a speech with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. Two thousand people attended the event and civil rights protests ensued. At one point, approximately 40 percent of Bennett’s student body was placed under arrest for trying to integrate restaurants and theaters in Greensboro. In response, Player and several other professors held classes and exams in jail. She also convinced the guards to grant access to the school nurse so injured students could be treated.
After she left Bennett, Player became an education consultant for the Agency for International Development, where she worked with women educators in Kenya and Nigeria. In 1962, she became the first woman elected president of the National Association of Colleges and Universities of the Methodist Church.