by Julie Parker –
Julia Nooe is a woman who lives her truth, from graduate studies in New Orleans and New York, to her clinical social work, to her time at Florida International University where she was a tenured associate professor, to a one-year stint at American University, and then home to our beautiful Asheville. “I think those wonderful zip codes helped to inform and educate me, and helped me embrace cultural diversity,” said Julia.
“I was one of the lucky ones. I grew up with parents who were fair-minded and socially conscious of others. We lived in central Kentucky, a moderate border state. While race relations there in the fifties were far from ideal, they were better than certain other areas of the country. My dad’s dad was a country MD who was reported to be willing to treat African American families—and that was in central Kentucky in the ’30s,” she recalled.
Julia Nooe comes from a long line of strong women. Her mother was declared by the Governor of Kentucky to be a Kentucky Colonel for her work in mental health. “The name Kentucky Colonel has become synonymous with strength of character, leadership and dedication to the welfare of others.” Her grandmother, a suffragette, was especially pivotal in her upbringing. Her earliest memory was etched so deeply in her psyche that it shaped 60-plus years of her life. At the age of three, Julia learned about friendship, mutual respect, racial equality, and valuing all other creatures—all interwoven in that one event, her first memory.
She was walking with her Mamaw, Julia Witherspoon, for whom she was named and from whom she learned so much about love. Hand in hand, the two of them were watching for the arrival of Mr. Henry, the great-grandson of a slave, and valued friend of Julia and her family. Henry was driving his mule-drawn wagon to the Witherspoon home. His little dog was scampering by the side of the wagon when a car drove along beside them, and not seeing the dog, hit it. Julia remembers the man’s deep pain and watching Miss Julia and Mr. Henry hugging and sobbing. In some way little Julia understood the mutual respect and deep love these adults had for one another.
“Down the street was my mother’s first cousin who lived off her Standard Oil stocks and traveled around the world three or four times before her death. As I was the daughter she never had, she wanted me to enjoy the world as she had, so she sent me to Europe for the summer of 1960. It was one of the most expansive and beautiful examining opportunities of my entire life.
“Our tour group was church-related and was fully integrated. The races commingled and it was a wonderful experience for a young Kentucky girl. When one of the group members (a beautiful young African American woman) and I landed back in Lexington in August, 1960, we saw the ‘COLORED’ and ‘WHITE’ signs over the restrooms. I went in the ‘colored’ bathroom with her as probably my first act of ‘civil disobedience.’ I have been practicing some sort of that ever since,” mused Julia.
Unsurprisingly, Julia Nooe has devoted her life to race relations—and rescuing dogs.
From her life’s journey—her family of origin, her travels, studies, and life experiences—she has grown to be passionate about the importance of acknowledging and ultimately celebrating difference, but at first, recognizing it, not fearing it, being able to sit with someone (literally and figuratively) and hear who they are, who their people are, what their language is, what their place is, what their land is.
“When I was in Delhi [India] I rode the metro train often. Without exception, people, particularly older men, would stare at me. I am sure they were staring at my Western attire, and my Caucasian pigmentation. I celebrate that because they were acknowledging me, I was ‘visible’ to them. I think the worst thing we can do to another human being is to render them invisible. You may remember Ralph Ellison’s book, The Invisible Man, where he talks about the black man as not being visible to the majority. And so one of the steps of cultural competence is to see, to acknowledge, to recognize, and again, ultimately to celebrate difference,” said Julia.
The largest body of Julia Nooe’s work was her 28 years as professor of Social Work at Mars Hill College (now University), where she encouraged young minds to embrace the concept, central to the field of social work, of “person-in-environment.” Life is a complex interweaving of person and family, person and village, person and race, person and ethnicity. We are reminded of John Donne’s poem that opens “No [wo]man is an island / Entire of itself / Every [wo]man is a piece of the continent / A part of the main.”
She also served for approximately 30 years on the organizing committee and then the board of the MLK Association of Asheville and Buncombe County, which has held its annual Prayer Breakfast for 35 years. That ongoing voluntarism put into practice the person-in-environment philosophy she propounds.
“Culture is one of the most important pieces in understanding each other,” says Julia Nooe. “Ideally we approach difference without bias, seeing it and then celebrating it.”