When Oralene Simmons became the first black student at an all-white college in 1961, the young woman from rural Madison County was taking a place in American history.
Hers was a courageous step and a sometimes-lonely experience. Now, it is a moment in time to share with younger generations. Simmons spoke recently at Western Carolina University during a weeklong Martin Luther King Jr. celebration, including her keynote address. Her words, as a witness to and an agent of change, carry on into February, designated as Black History Month in recognition of African American accomplishments and contributions.
“As a child, every morning I got up to ride a bus to school,” said Simmons. “And on the way, I went past other schools that were closer to my home. My school had worn-out, hand-me-down books from those schools. That seemed so unfair to me. I believe that those mornings were the start of my work for social justice.”
Not everyone may be able to envision a time when there were separate water fountains for blacks and whites, businesses could legally refuse black clientele and segregated educational institutions were predominant throughout North Carolina. But that was a reality of the 1950s and ‘60s that Simmons routinely faced.
In 1960, inspired by King’s nonviolent movement to end segregation, Simmons and some of her fellow high school students, started a civil rights group in Asheville modeled after his nonviolence philosophy.
“There is still so much more to be done,” Simmons said. “I see that as a challenge. I’m retired, but I work harder now than ever.”
Alpha Phi Alpha Inc. fraternity member Jordan Sturgis, a WCU business major from Lenoir, said seeing Simmons “and hearing her personal history is an inspiration and we’re fortunate to learn about the impact of her life on others. I hope it impacts each of us in a special way.”
A series of free and open-to-the-public programs have been scheduled to commemorate Black History Month on campus:
Thursday, Feb. 6 ― Lecture by Benjamin Chavis at 7 p.m. in the A.K. Hinds University Center theater. Chavis is a civil rights leader, co-founder with Russell Simmons of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and former assistant to Martin Luther King Jr. Learn More
Thursday, Feb. 13 ― Screening of “Talking in Black America,” at 5 p.m. in the University Center theater. This documentary is about the creativity and resilience of people living through oppression, segregation and the fight for equality, and the ways African Americans communicate. Sponsor is the WCU Department of Communication Sciences and Disorders. Learn More
Tuesday, Feb. 18 ― “How Black Greeks Shaped Higher Education in the United States,” a panel discussion at 5:30 p.m. in the University Center theater on how African American sororities and fraternities have been a pivotal part of history and culture since the early 20th century, including activism, scholarship, social uplift and service. Sponsors are WCU’s Hunter Library, Office of Equality and Diversity Programs, National Panhellenic Council and Intercultural Affairs Department.
Wednesday, Feb. 19 ― “ICA Birthday Party,” celebrates the 10th anniversary of WCU’s Intercultural Affairs 10th anniversary, from 2 to 5 p.m. in Room 227 of the University Center. Learn More
Thursday, Feb. 20 ― “Racial Healing: The Next Step in Racial Justice and Our Collective Liberation,” a presentation by Anneliese Singh, associate dean of the College of Education, University of Georgia, at 6 p.m. in the Multipurpose Room of the University Center. Singh will speak to 10 practical strategies of healing that people can use in their work toward racial justice and to engage in collective healing. Sponsor is WCU’s College of Education and Allied Profession’s diversity committee. Learn More
Wednesday, Feb. 26 ― “Afro-Latinx Dialogue,” at 5 p.m. in Room 227 of the University Center. An open conversation about being black in the Latin community, including discussion about the issues and struggles of trying to identify with both cultures. Sponsor is WCU’s Latinx Appreciation Student Organization.
Additional events may be scheduled. Visit the Intercultural Affairs calendar for updates. For more information on Black History Month at WCU, contact Ricardo Nazario-Colon, WCU chief diversity officer, at 828-227-3251 or firstname.lastname@example.org.