Next Monday the 15th is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day when we pause to honor and remember a man and his movement to bring equality and civil rights for everyone. Many courageous people were part of that movement and some are right here at home in Asheville. Below is an article prepared by MWB attorney Joe McGuire. It is a brief overview of one African-American woman’s life in Asheville, Ms. Oralene Simmons. Ms. Simmons was the first African-American student at Mars Hill College after segregation. She has deep roots in these mountains and continues to serve in the community where her family has lived for decades. Ms. Simmons founded the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Association of Asheville and Buncombe County. The Association hosts the 37th annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Prayer Breakfast. For more information and how to get tickets click here.
The Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Association of Asheville and Buncombe County will host its 37th annual Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Prayer Breakfast at the Crowne Plaza Resort on Saturday, January 13, 2018. For the first time since the Prayer Breakfast began in 1982, the keynote address will be given by the Association’s founder, Ms. Oralene Anderson Graves Simmons, who will relate her personal journey and the events that led to the establishment of the Association. The breakfast begins at 8:30 am, with doors opening at 7:45 am.
Ms. Simmons is the great-granddaughter of Joseph Anderson, a slave who was held as collateral to guarantee a loan used to build Mars Hill College (now University) in Mars Hill, N.C. in 1856. One hundred and five years later, she became the first African-American student enrolled at the college. More recently her daughter and her granddaughter have also graduated from Mars Hill University.
Ms. Simmons organized and hosted Asheville’s first MLK Prayer Breakfast in 1982 at Asheville Parks & Recreation Department’s Montford Community Center, where she served as director. In 1997, she became the head of the YMI Cultural Center, a nonprofit organization that has been the hub of African-American culture since its founding as the Young Men’s Institute in 1893. Since her retirement as a Cultural Arts Supervisor, she has been active with the restoration committee for the Anderson Rosenwald School in Mars Hill and as a public speaker.
In 2015 Ms. Simmons was named an “Asheville Living Treasure,” and at the January 2016 Prayer Breakfast she received the Order of the Longleaf Pine, the state’s highest honor, presented on behalf of Governor Pat McCrory. In April 2017, the Buncombe County Commissioners named April 11 as “Oralene Simmons Day” in recognition of her dedication to human rights and dignity. In August of 2017, the Leadership Asheville Forum presented her with its Circle of Excellence Award. Ms. Simmons plans on releasing her memoir, Journey to Myself, in 2018.
On January 15, 2018, the official Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday (which would have been Dr. King’s 78th birthday), the Association will hold a Peace March and Rally in downtown Asheville. The Peace March and Rally will begin at 11:30 am at St. James AME Church at Martin Luther King Drive and Hildebrand Street, followed at noon by a march to City-County Plaza to hear speakers on justice and peace. That evening at 6 pm, a Candlelight Service and Presentation of Awards will be held at Central United Methodist Church, 27 Church Street, Asheville. The message will be offered by the Rev. Brian Combs, pastor of the Haywood Street Congregation. The Association will honor several citizens who have dedicated themselves to the cause of social justice and the legacy of Dr. King. The Association also honors area youth with a Youth Celebration and Awards ceremony in the spring, and commemorates Juneteenth each summer.