By Mark-Ellis Bennett
A stalwart civil rights pioneer was recently invited to share a chapter of her compelling life story at Leadership Asheville Forum.
Oralene Simmons was introduced by her friend Dr. Elizabeth Colton as the founding visionary behind the Martin Luther King Jr. Association of Asheville and Buncombe County, a recipient of North Carolina’s highest civilian honor — the Order of the Longleaf Pine, and the first African-American student to be integrated at Mars Hill University.
Simmons said that as a little girl in rural Madison County, her favorite quiet place to sit was on the root of a large oak tree halfway up a hill that looked over the house she shared with her grandmother and uncle. From that perspective, she would record the details of the constellation that is her journey in life in a book she kept. She learned and wrote at an early age about racial injustice.
Simmons would take a shortcut through the Mars Hill University campus on her way to the bus that would transport her and her classmates to the Anderson Rosenwald School for Colored Children where her grandmother was the first teacher. “I watched the White students walk back and forth carrying their books. The only African-Americans I saw were maids, janitors and yard men,” she said.
Her grandmother took her to the amphitheater to see a stage production on Founders Day at the school. “I watched a student in paper chains with his face painted black being led off the stage by another student.” According to the story, he was being taken to prison. Simmons asked her grandmother if he was being jailed because he didn’t wash his face. Were the paper chains his decorations? “She told me that the student with the black painted face was portraying my great, great grandfather.”
Simmons learned that Joe Anderson, the best brick maker in three counties, had molded the bricks from which the school was constructed. He was also a slave owned by one of the founders of the university. History books informed that in 1859 the board of college trustees had underestimated constructions costs for the building, and the contractor subsequently placed a lien on the property. Anderson was held as collateral until the lien for about $1,100 was paid off. “If the money owed was not paid within five days, Joe would be sold at the auction block to the highest bidder. Fortunately, the money was raised, and the debt paid,” she said.
In April of 1961, Simmons submitted an application for admission to Mars Hill University that was initially declined. “By June other students were being accepted, but I had only to look in the mirror and I knew why. Rev. Robert Seymour at Chapel Hill made an appeal on my behalf, and the decision was made. Yes, they would accept my application.” As the first Black student at Mars Hill University, Simmons learned about the sharp realities of being the progeny of a hero, and being a student who suffered the indignities of threats and the harassment by being told she didn’t belong there.
“I moved into the dormitory, but not until some of my fellow students moved out. They didn’t want to sleep under the same roof with a Negro. There were threats of bricks coming through my window. One guy even volunteered to hang me from the big oak tree because he had a rope. I was warned not to go out after dark, not even to go to the cafeteria to get food or to the library to do research,” she said.
Simmons asked her dormitory mother if she might speak at the pajama party at year’s end. “I wanted all my dormitory mates to know just how much I appreciated their kindness during my stay there. I told them you have experienced living under the roof with a Negro. You can go home and tell your family, your friends and your community that you had this experience. Please let them know that I did not shine your shoes, clean your room, steal anything from you, or slip into your room to knife you in the back. Please tell them I was a student, that I had a sister named Becky Watson, and I wanted you to be my sister too. I want a fair education, equal employment, and my name not on the welfare roll,” Simmons said. “And by the way, I will be back and other African-Americans will follow me.”