Oralene Graves Simmons

Oralene Graves Simmons was born in Mars Hill, NC during the Second World War. Her father died shortly thereafter and moved to live with her grandmother, who taught her to read and write before she entered public school. Her grandmother also taught Oralene about local botany and how to predict the weather.

Oralene in her 1961 High School Yearbook.
North Carolina Room, Pack Memorial Library. MS376.005

Oralene entered high school in the 1960s and became interested in the Civil Rights Movement. She trained in non-violent resistance and learned about Martin Luther King, Jr.

Mars Hill University circa 1950s, shortly before Oralene enrolled.
North Carolina Room, Pack Memorial Library. Image ID J667-8.

Oralene decided to attend Mars Hill University, and became the first African-American student at the private college. Oralene’s connection to Mars Hill University began with her great-great-grandfather, Joe Anderson. Joe was a slave owned by a Board of Trustees member and made bricks for what would become the first MHU building. When Joe’s owner refused to pay construction debts to a contractor, Joe was arrested and placed in jail as collateral until his owner paid. Eventually, the debts were paid and Joe was released from prison. Following the Civil War, Joe’s former master gave him 18 acres of land. Joe died in the early 1900s and in the 1930s, his remains were relocated to the MHU campus.

Later in her life Oralene would go on to receive the Making of the Martin Luther King Holiday award from Coretta Scott King for her work on the state’s Martin Luther King Jr. Commission. In addition to her work on the MLK Jr Commission, Oralene is highly active in Asheville, where she served on the Buncombe Alternatives Board of Directors and was a member of the Youth Service Action Group. Among the other awards she received are the “Award for Excellence in Public Service, African-American Achievement, Scottish Rite Award of Brotherhood, Order of Eastern Star Service Award, Human Rights Award of Excellence, Circle of Excellence Award, Outstanding Achievement Award from the North Carolina Recreation and Parks Society, Equal Employment Opportunity and WLOS Person of the Week.”

Oralene continues to work in the Asheville area as a civil rights leader. She organized the first MLK Jr Prayer Breakfast in Asheville, an annual event that continues to this day.

To learn more about Oralene Graves Simmons and several other African America women in Asheville, look for Helen Moseley-Edington’s Angels Unaware: Asheville Women of Color. A copy is available for research at the UNC-Asheville Special Collections. More information on the Martin Luther King, Jr. Prayer Breakfast and other work by the Dr. MLK, Jr. Association of Asheville & Buncombe County can be found on their website, mlkasheville.org.


Huntley, Cameron. “Joe Anderson’s Legacy.” Mountain Xpress. January 24, 2015. Accessed May 1, 2020. https://mountainx.com/mx_sidelight/joe-anderson-s-legacy/.

Moseley-Edington, Helen. Angels Unaware: Asheville Women of Color. Asheville, North Carolina: Home Press, 1996.

Stevens-Lee Yearbook. 1961. MS376-005, North Carolina Room, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, NC.

Unknown Author. Mars Hill University. ca. 1950s. J667-8, North Carolina Room, Pack Memorial Library, Asheville, NC.

Walton, Beth. “Oralene Simmons recognized for integrating Mars Hill.” Asheville Citizen-Times. OCtober 25, 2015. Accessed May 1, 2020. https://www.citizen-times.com/story/news/local/2015/10/25/oralene-simmons-recognized-integrating-mars-hill/74283028/.