Dr. Oralene Graves Simmons is president of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Association of Asheville and Buncombe County. She was the founding inspiration for the Prayer Breakfast held each January in Asheville since 1982, when she worked as director of the Montford Community Center, where the first four breakfasts were held. In 1990 NC Gov. James G. Martin appointed Mrs. Simmons to co-chair the state Martin Luther King, Jr. Holiday Commission, and two years later the federal MLK Commission honored her with the “Making of the King Holiday Award,” presented by Mrs. Coretta Scott King.
Mrs. 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, NC in 1856. One hundred and five years later, Oralene Graves became the first African American student enrolled at the college; since then, her daughter and granddaughter have also become alumnae.
After leaving the Montford Center in 1997, Mrs. Simmons led the YMI Cultural Center as a nonprofit organization under contract with Asheville Parks & Recreation. Since her retirement, in addition to leading the MLK Association, she has been active with the restoration committee for the Anderson Rosenwald School in Mars Hill and as a public speaker. In 2015 she 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 Gov. Pat McCrory. In August, 2017 the Leadership Asheville Forum presented her with its Circle of Excellence Award.