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MHU Dedicates Tree and Plaque to First African American Student

Oralene Simmons With Family And StudentsA weeping cherry tree and a plaque on the Mars Hill University campus mark a special spot of commemoration for Asheville resident Oralene Simmons. Ms. Simmons, who attended Mars Hill from 1961-1963, was the first African American student to enroll at the institution. The university held a dedication ceremony for the tree and plaque on Monday, October 12, 2015, as part of Founders Week activities. Ms. Simmons, her son, and other family and friends joined the university community for the ceremony.

Members of the university's student NAACP chapter spearheaded the effort to honor Ms. Simmons. Delta Kappa Theta fraternity and the Black Student Association also took part in the ceremony. The tree is planted near the site of an existing memorial for Ms. Simmons's great-great-grandfather, Joseph Anderson, on Joe Anderson Drive on the southeast end of the university campus. Mr. Anderson was an enslaved man who was imprisoned by the Buncombe County sheriff as collateral in a dispute over finances during the founding of Mars Hill College. Joe Anderson now is recognized as one of the institution's founders.

Oralene Anderson Graves Simmons is a Mars Hill native who has become a well known figure in the Asheville area for her decades of work in the community and in the civil rights arena. Among many other contributions, she founded the Martin Luther King, Jr., Prayer Breakfast in Asheville; was executive director of the YMI Cultural Center; and served as the cultural arts supervisor for the City of Asheville.

Oralene Simmons Plaque

Weeping Cherry Tree Oralene Simmons