Oralene Simmons is known throughout western North Carolina as the founder of Asheville’s annual Martin Luther King, Jr. Prayer Breakfast.
Many are also aware of her history as a civil rights pioneer, beginning when she was a Stephens-Lee High School student involved with ASCORE (Asheville Student Commission on Racial Equality), and continuing with her enrollment as the first African American undergraduate at Mars Hill College (now University).
But few younger people today have any idea of the personal scars that discrimination left on African American citizens in the 1940s, ’50s, and ’60s.
Challenges in early years
Simmons grew up in Madison County, where her grandmother taught at the segregated public school in the Long Ridge community. The two-room school was one of several thousand built through collaboration between the president of Sears Roebuck, Julius Rosenwald, and local communities, which committed to raising up to half the funds needed for each school. Rosenwald was moved to undertake the project by his friend Booker T. Washington, a professor at Tuskegee University in Alabama and a longtime advocate for education for America’s black citizens.
After reaching the highest level of schooling provided by the Long Branch School (now undergoing restoration as the Anderson Rosenwald School), Oralene could continue her education only by travelling to Asheville each day. Stephens-Lee in Asheville was the only public high school for African Americans in the western part of the state, serving students from Henderson, Madison, Yancey, and Transylvania counties in addition to all of Buncombe County.
Busing—long before busing angered white communities
“Every day on that long bus ride I saw schools that were closer to my home, but they were for white children only, so we had to pass them by to go all the way to Asheville,” she reminisced. “Later I went to stay with my cousins in the Shiloh community so I could continue going to school without spending all that time on the bus. We had students from Brevard, Hendersonville, Mars Hill … all over, because their communities didn’t have schools for black children past sixth or seventh grade.”
Some black girls attended the Allen School in Asheville, a private institution founded in 1887 by the Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church as a boarding school for African American girls. But for most local African Americans, Stephens-Lee offered the only opportunity to earn a high school diploma from 1922 to 1965—when it closed and sent its remaining students to South French Broad High School before fully integrating with Lee Edwards, the white high school, to form Asheville High in 1969.
The nascent Civil Rights movement
Like many of her classmates, Oralene was determined to gain an education and to participate in the growing movement to demand civil rights for African Americans. She graduated from Stephens-Lee in 1961, having participated with ASCORE in helping desegregate the library and other public institutions and private businesses in Asheville, and she was determined to attend college in her home town of Mars Hill, where she was accepted for admission and enrolled in 1961.
[Much has been written about Simmons’s great-grandfather, Joe Anderson, a slave held in jail as collateral for a loan to build the Mars Hill College. For more information, see theurbannews.com/our-town/2012/the-andersons-in-black-and-white-oralene-simmonss-story-of-a-slave-heritage]
Oralene Simmons’s life story is well-known to some, but often ignored or forgotten under the spotlight of her leadership of the MLK Association and Prayer Breakfast and her other public activities. In fact, her personal story became inextricably intertwined with that public work, as her career with Asheville Parks & Recreation Department allowed her to engage the community in ways that Dr. King’s vision called for.
Advocate, social worker, teacher
Throughout her professional career, Simmons remained ferociously dedicated to education. After a divorce, she found herself a single mother raising five children, and she made sure that they all graduated from college. And as Director of the Montford Community Center for more than 20 years, as well as two stints at the Reid Center (now the Arthur R. Edington Career and Education Center), and ultimately as a Cultural Arts Supervisor serving all Parks & Rec facilities, Mrs. Simmons saw her role as advocate, social worker, teacher, and communicator.
“A community center like Montford has to be more than just a gymnasium or a place for children to play,” she explains. “It’s not just recreation: it’s education and cultural development. It’s helping families with their needs, and opening doors for them.”
Arts and culture
To do so, she began arts programs for children, bringing in teachers who helped them learn to draw and paint. She pushed to get African American girls admitted to the Miss Asheville Pageant for the first time, after decades as an all-white competition. And that entailed instruction in poise and whatever talent they had to nurture. Montford invited dance and acting instructors, so the children would also be qualified to audition for roles at Tanglewood Children’s Theater, which thrived from the 1960s into the ’90s.
“I wanted to introduce them to theater, because I loved acting myself,” she remembers. “I was the first African American female to be cast in a play at Asheville Community Theater, in The Last of Mrs. Lincoln, and I was a member of the Montford Park Players working with Hazel Robinson. So it was important to me that other black children get to be in plays, too.” She even went to Charleston for a playwright’s conference and competition sponsored by the National Endowment for the Arts, where she won the Best Actress award.
Education & Training
Serious intellectual work mattered as well. She helped numerous bright children, who had no idea how to pursue a dream of going to college, put together their applications for admittance and for scholarships. And she helped seniors with literacy programs. “There were a number of people who were in Bible Study classes who couldn’t read their Bible or their assignments,” she said. “Some of them drove, but couldn’t read to pass their driver’s license tests.”
Children who needed glasses but couldn’t afford eye exams or the cost of the lenses were on her radar, too. She arranged doctor appointments, and then helped them get discounted or even free glasses. Once, when she took a group of runners to McCormack Field for a track meet, she noticed that “one boy’s shoes were falling off his feet. He didn’t even have shoestrings.” So she rushed out and bought him a pair of shoes so he could compete equally with the other teams.
And, when necessary—when some of the Montford kids got in trouble—she would appear in court with them and their parents, and request leniency by allowing them to work off their sentence through community service, at Montford Community Center and elsewhere. If young people needed jobs, she helped find them, for after school or summer, and if they were ineligible for free school lunches, she managed to arrange for them to get a meal somehow or other.
Modeling Asheville as a Model City
“It all began really with the Model Cities program, which Asheville participated in,” she told The Urban News. “I was a member of the Model Cities Commission, and part of our programming was to reach out to engage people in all parts of the city, poor people who had no access, black folk who had always been ignored or overlooked. So I got to move all through the community in the very beginning.”
Engaged she has been, throughout her life. She has served on boards or organizations touching every aspect of community life, ranging from Rural Southern Voice for Peace to the Mediation Center, from the Asheville-Buncombe Youth Service Action Group to Helpmate, as well as the YWCA, A-B Tech Community Foundation, and Leadership Asheville.
And that’s where she ended up after her promotion to Cultural Arts Supervisor, and later in her final job with Parks & Rec as Executive Director of the YMI Cultural Center: moving all through the community again. There she worked closely with longtime employees Margaret Fuller and Connie Jefferson as well as the larger community. [NB: this reporter worked at the YMI during Ms. Simmons’s tenure there.]
“We had programs for children, both outreach to schools and bringing children to the YMI. We had the YMI Jazz Band, and Jackie King taught piano lessons. We had a lively art gallery with visiting exhibits and local artists like photographer Steve Mann, and numerous painters, craft artists, and others. The Center for Diversity Education held events there showcasing its work on early African American history in western North Carolina, and of course there was Goombay, which brought the entire community, black and white, together for the festival along with performers and vendors and artists from all over, from New York to the Caribbean.”
Opportunity means everything
In all her endeavors, the driving vision for Oralene Simmons has been the belief that opportunity leads to equality. If children are exposed early to education, arts, culture, and engagement in the community, they can thrive; if they are kept out, if doors are closed to them, they will remain outsiders from society. And then they turn away, to anger, drugs, crime, and, perhaps worst of all, to despair, a hopelessness that is passed on from generation to generation.
“And really, that’s the heart of what Dr. King preached,” she exclaimed. “That we have to give all children, all people, an equal opportunity. His dream was that we should all share in the American Dream.”
From her early adulthood, King was her hero, because he said those things that needed to be said, and needed to be heard by white America, by political America, and especially by southern Americans; he said them loud and clear, and he forced the nation to listen and to change.
And so she established the first Martin Luther King Prayer Breakfast in North Carolina, in 1982, even before the Reagan Administration signed off on the national King Holiday. She served on the statewide Dr. Martin Luther King Commission, was presented the King Leadership Award by Dr. King’s widow, Coretta Scott King, has led tours of important civil rights museums and other sites throughout the South, and became certified as a teacher of Kingian Nonviolent Conflict Reconciliation from the University of Rhode Island. And now she is writing a book about her journey.
Fifty years and counting
“This year is the 50th anniversary of the year Dr. King was assassinated,” Mrs. Simmons notes. “And half a century after his death, even though his legacy lives on, there is clearly so much left for us and our children and grandchildren to do to ensure civil rights and bring about true equality. I think that’s one reason I was asked to be the keynote speaker at this year’s Prayer Breakfast—to recognize that even after half a century, our work is not done. Not just my work, but the work that the next generation, and the next, will have to focus on. Because unfortunately there are always those who will try to stifle anyone who tries to uplift others; there are always some people who believe that special privileges are more important than equal rights.”
Noting the resurgence of white supremacists across the country, and of anti-equality forces throughout the world, Simmons says with passion, “Dr. King quoted Theodore Parker, a Unitarian minister of the 19th century, when he said ‘The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’. And that is as true today as it was 200 years ago, and 50 years ago, but all of us still have to work together to bend the arc in the right direction.”