The history of Western North Carolina’s slave economy became a stark reality for Oralene Graves Simmons when she enrolled at Mars Hill College in 1961. The first African American student admitted to the school, she had stronger and deeper ties to the institution than anyone else on campus: Her great-great-grandfather, a slave, had been held as collateral for a loan that allowed the college to be built.
History books and archival documents tell the story of how the first college trustees had underestimated construction costs, and when the contractor asked for the final payment, they found themselves financially embarrassed. A lien was placed against the building, and the sheriff came to serve it. The contractor noticed a young black slave by the name of Joe who belonged to Jessie Woodson Anderson, who was molding the bricks to build the school. The contractor and the sheriff decided that Joe, considered the best brick-maker in three counties, would be held as the collateral.
Joe was a well-liked and respected member of the community, but he knew nothing of finance, loans, and liens. Taken to jail by the sheriff, he expected that his friends would bring him home. The trustees had five days to raise the money to make their payment on the loan; if they failed, Joe would be sold to the highest bidder. Fortunately for Joe, his family, and Mars Hill College, they raised the money and paid off the debt.
After the Civil War came freedom, property, and a future for Joe Anderson’s family. His life was productive but uneventful after 1865, and he died in the early 1900s and was buried in the family plot. In 1932 his remains were taken home to the Mars Hill College Campus where a marker still remains.
When she became the first African American student at the college in 1961, Oralene Graves wanted to know more about Joe and his family than just the bare-bones story. She started by asking her grandmother, who had grown up in his home, about Joe. Her grandmother told her stories and gave her some pictures that dated back to the Civil War, 100 years before. Oralene read books about the history of Mars Hill and even managed to talk with the author of one.
Marriage, a family of five, and a long career (with Asheville Parks & Recreation Department) followed her years at Mars Hill College. Then, many years later, Oralene again started doing research and putting together files with information from the Federal 1860 slave list and the 1870 and 1880 censuses for Madison and Buncombe Counties.
As she continued to read history books she became interested in the relationship between Joe Anderson, her slave forebear, and Jessie Woodson Anderson, Joe’s slave owner, and their families. Many times they were described as friends, both before and after the Civil War. She often attended the annual Founders Day Banquet at Mars Hill College, always hopeful that some of the descendants of the Jessie Anderson family would be there. She wanted to sit across the table from them and have a conversation. She admits that she did not know what she would say – but she never found them.
Until last year, when Oralene, 50 years removed from Mars Hill College, retired from Parks & Rec, and constantly busy with the Martin Luther King Association and with her own children and grandchildren, received a telephone call. A woman in Hawaii, a complete stranger, wanted to know if Oralene knew of someone named Jessie Woodson Anderson. Thinking that it was just a writer or reporter gathering information for another story, Oralene was quick to ask, “What about him?”
The caller said that her name was Suzie Anderson and that her great-great grandfather, Jessie Woodson Anderson, was Ms. Simmons’s great-great grandfather’s slave owner.
Oralene found herself catching on to the kitchen sink to steady herself as she asked the caller to “Please repeat that.”
Ms. Anderson asked Oralene not to hang up the phone, and Oralene listened as the woman spoke apologetic words; she wanted more information, more knowledge, and even expressed the hope that her great-great-grandfather had not been a mean master, like so many she read about in books.
As Oralene pieced the story together, Suzie Anderson had been on a national search for Oralene; she had retired and come across some old family records and began searching her roots, which led her to learn about Jessie Anderson and, hence, Joe Anderson. After their conversation ended, Oralene cried and cried as she released the pent-up emotions of a lifetime.
Over time, the two women became friends through letters, emails, and telephone calls. And, finally, Suzie came to visit Oralene in Asheville. They planned a grand first meeting in front of Joe Anderson’s gravesite at Mars Hill College – a meeting that was filmed by WLOS TV.
Together they researched their shared and separate family history. They start searching side by side, each tracing different lines of the two families. They searched at the Old Buncombe County Genealogical Society, at Mars Hill College, and at the Yancey and Mitchell County courthouses. They read wills and other documents. They searched by day and placed names and facts on their trees at night. They watched the trees grow and the branches spread out until they realized that the two family trees had crossed. Suzie yelled out, “I knew it! We are cousins! I love my little cousin,” she exclaimed as she planted a kiss on Oralene’s cheek.
Suzie returned to Asheville a month later, and she and Oralene attended Mars Hill College Founders Day events together. Other cousins heard their story and traveled to meet them from as far away as Georgia and South Carolina. When Suzie left she promised that she would return in the fall of the following year for more research. Instead, she surprised Oralene again when she called and said that that she had changed her mind – she wanted to treat Oralene to a two-week vacation in Hawaii.
On the islands, the two long-separated cousins didn’t talk much about their research; this was a vacation for fun, shopping, and seeing the beautiful sights. Oralene did enjoy one special occasion related to the women’s genealogical ties: a champagne brunch in her honor, when she got to meet Suzie’s family, friends, and coworkers – more than 40 people altogether, most with gifts for their guest.
Just as Oralene began her search into her past by visiting her grandmother, today her own grandchildren often stop by her house in Kenilworth to hear her stories and check what is new in her files. She realizes that her search will now take her outside the Asheville area as she continues to unlock the mysteries of the Anderson family and other connecting families. Searching her roots has now become her hobby. Suzie plans to return to Asheville in 2013, and she and Oralene will write another chapter in their book.
If you would like to have a conversation with Suzie and Oralene or to receive tips on finding your roots, you can email Oralene Graves Simmons at Ogsimmons@att.net.