YMI leader Dr. Oralene Simmons integrated Mars Hill College and has spent her life advocating for civil rights in Asheville

Dr. Simmons is among the notable Black women of Asheville who spent her life dedicated to fighting for civil rights. She made history in 1961, becoming the first Black student to enroll and study at Mars Hill College. It was a moment more than 100 years in the making after Dr. Simmons' great-grandfather, Joseph Anderson, an enslaved man, was held as collateral to guarantee a loan used to build the university in 1856. Her bravery gained worldwide recognition and led to features on her heroism and leadership in Jet and Time magazines. In 1990, she was honored alongside Coretta Scott King at the United Nations headquarters in New York City.

She was also a 1961 graduate of Stephens-Lee High School and a member of the Asheville Student Committee on Racial Equality (ASCORE), an organization of students working together for integration.

Today, she leads the Martin Luther King, Jr. Association of Asheville and Buncombe County, and continues to inspire community activism through her contributions to the establishment of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Park and most recently, the Buncombe Community Remembrance Project.

Dr. Simmons has been honored with many awards over the years, including Leadership Asheville Forum’s annual Circle of Excellence Award for community leadership and lifetime service. The Buncombe County Commission named April 11, 2015 “Oralene Simmons Day” in recognition of her dedication to human rights and dignity.