Dr. Willa B. Player was born in Jackson, Mississippi, on August 9, 1909. Her family moved to Akron, Ohio, in 1917, where she graduated from the public schools in 1925. She attended Akron University and then Ohio Wesleyan, transferring to be with her sister and graduating in 1929. She taught in the public schools in Akron and was the first African American practice teacher in that school system. After receiving her master’s from Oberlin College in 1930, she was hired to teach Latin and French at Bennett College in Greensboro, North Carolina. She went on become Director of Religious Activities at Bennett.
Player studied abroad for a brief period of time and received the Certificat D’Etude from the University of Grenoble, France, in 1935. Upon her return to Bennett College, Player was made Director of Admissions and Acting Dean. In 1948, she earned a Ph.D. from Columbia University. In 1952, she was promoted to coordinator of instruction and in 1955 was made vice president. The following year, Player became the first female president of the college and the first African American woman in the country to be named president of a four-year, fully-accredited liberal arts college.
Notable activities during her tenure as president include arranging for Martin Luther King Jr. to speak at the Bennett chapel and visiting jailed students daily during the 1960 sit-ins, arranging for professors to hold class and administer exams there. In 1962, she was named President of the National Association of Schools and Colleges of the Methodist Church, the first woman to hold this post. Player was also the first African America woman to serve as Trustee of Ohio Wesleyan. She resigned from Bennett in 1966 to become the first female Director of the Division of College Support in the Department of Health, Education and Welfare (HEW), where she served until her retirement in 1986.
Player was also active in many organizations, including the National Commission on Religion and Race of the Methodist Church, the Board of Trustees of the Southern Fellowship Fund, the Commission of Liberal Learning of the American Association of Colleges, the National Commission on United Methodist Higher Education, and the Board of Trustees of Clark College. She was the recipient of eight honorary degrees. Dr. Willa Player died on August 27, 2003, in Greensboro at the age of ninety-four.