Spring 2013

Thelma Washington PorterThelma Porter

Thelma Porter is a business woman, a humanitarian, a community volunteer, a beloved wife, mother and a cancer survivor.  Lovingly called Thel by many, she is known in the community for her generosity of spirit and serves as an active role model with a quick wit and fun loving personality.  Thel’s love of the outdoors and our mountain heritage is part of her soul.

Thelma was born August 8, 1921 in Sumter, South Carolina. Due to the young age of her parents and their lack of resources, Thelma was sent to live with Lillie and Moses Washington, her aunt and uncle in Asheville, NC.  The Washingtons provided a loving home for her. Thelma was a quick learner and enjoyed attending Hill Street Elementary School.  Like many other African American families of the time, the Washington family migrated north seeking better opportunities. They lived New Jersey for two years, but returned to Asheville where Thelma ultimately graduated from Stephen’s Lee High School in 1938. After graduation family funds were not available for Thelma to pursue a higher education. However, years later, after she had raised her family, Thelma matriculated at Shaw University with a bachelor’s degree in Theology. She is a proud member of the Zeta Phi Beta sorority, which provides scholarships to young black women.

Because there were limited opportunities for young blacks in that period, Thelma entered the work force in domestic service, working for the Haywood family. Thelma was always an entrepreneur looking for opportunities to make money. She talked the owner of a beauty salon into letting her open a concession stand adjacent to the salon where she could sell “Nehi” sodas and other snacks. Even though Thelma eventually had to shut down her operation, her first business thrived and was deemed a success. She saved enough money from the business to move north to Detroit. Her plan was to take a business course, but she could only realize the dream by returning to domestic service. Thelma’s high school sweetheart, James Porter, soon followed her to Detroit and they were married at Detroit’s City Hall on January 27, 1945. When James’ mother became ill, the couple returned to Asheville permanently.  

The Porters worked diligently. They opened a business in Asheville’s East End at the corner of Clemmons and Pine, where they sold groceries, clothing and many other items.  If you needed it, they had it. Thelma also operated a “rolling store”, taking items to the shut-ins unable to come to the store.  Frequently people could not afford necessities, but Thelma always provided what they needed.  Urban renewal and revitalization of the 1950’s, 1960’s and 1970’s caused massive changes in the community. The Porter’s store was one of the many fatalities of that period.

Being health conscious way before it became popular (walking, jogging, hiking and belly-dancing), Thelma applied for a position at the YMCA that she thought would be a good fit for her talents.  At the interview, the director asked Thelma “Why you?” and she replied, “Why not me?” - she got the job. Thelma would remain with the organization for twenty-five years, where she provided massage services, ran the saunas and other related services.

Thelma had longed for a family, but an unfortunate accident left the couple unable to have children. The Porters adopted two children, James Conner Porter Jr. and Stephanie Porter, who both have successful careers. They also nurtured nieces, nephews and god-children, even raised some as their own.

Thelma guided many young black women through her volunteer work, becoming the first black Girl Scout leader in the area. She channeled her love of the outdoors into her troop and led the girls on hikes and camp outs. She also took the girls swimming at the still segregated Walton Street facility and provided the girls with many field trips.

Thelma’s success in life served as a role model for youngsters and adults alike. She has given generously of her time as a Sunday School teacher, gathering neighborhood children and taking them to Sunday School. Among other good deeds, Thelma was charitable with her time visiting local nursing homes.

Thelma’s life proves that one can be successful despite the odds stacked against them.  Her faith, spirit, sense of humor and her example serve as an incentive for all to love and give to family, friends, neighbors and community. When asked how many children she has, Thelma replies with a laugh and a smile, “Oh, child, a whole bunch of them. They’s all my mine.”  Thelma is a guiding light to all.

Julia Greenlee RayJulia Greenlee Ray

Julia Greenlee Ray is a business leader, a dedicated community leader, a master crafts person and a loving wife and mother. Her diminutive size and soft-spoken manner belie the exuberant spirit and fierce determination that has made her a strong force in our community. 

Julia was born October 28 1914 in Marion NC. The Greenlee surname traces its roots to the Greenlee Plantation where Julia’s ancestors were slaves to the James Hervey Greenlee family. When Julia was a child, her parents moved the family to New York City seeking better living conditions and employment opportunities. Her father worked as an ornamental plasterer and her mother as a seamstress in a sweatshop, both masters of their craft.  Her mother brought work home, as she was paid by the piece and Julia sat beside her at night, gleaning her skills. Julia’s mother succumbed to pleurisy, due to harsh living and working conditions, passed away and Julia was sent back to Marion to be raised by her grandmother, for whom she was named. 

Julia’s grandmother was a force to be reckoned with, often showing her feisty attitude in the face of racial, prejudicial situations. She served as a role model for Julia, providing her with a strict upbringing and loving guidance. Julia’s family had the financial means to provide her with higher education and she graduated from Barber-Scotia College in Concord NC. The college’s mission was to train Negro women in preparation for leadership roles in the teaching and social work professions. After graduation, Julia attended the University in Pittsburgh. 

Julia’s photo appeared in the Pittsburgh Courier, one of the top selling black newspapers in the 1930’s. Her future mother-in-law saw this photograph and was so struck by Julia’s beauty she sent it to her son, Jesse Ray in Asheville, who began writing Julia. The two met in person while Julia was visiting relatives in Asheville. They were married and decided to settle in the mountains. Nineteen thirty- five was still the time of the Great Depression and the South was still segregated. The Rays worked hard to make ends meet, he as an embalmer and she waiting tables, hostessing and assisting with her aunt’s catering business. In 1937, they welcomed a daughter and in 1938, their hard work and tenacity paid off and they established the Jesse Ray Funeral Home on College Street in Asheville.

WWII had an impact on Julia and her family. Rationing, especially for food and gasoline, were a part of everyday life. Julia volunteered at the USO where she and others prepared food and provided entertainment for the soldiers.  Although Julia’s two brothers joined the service, Jesse was exempt from active service because he was an embalmer. He served with the Graves Registration Service as a civilian embalmer for the U.S Army, where his job was to prepare the fallen soldiers for their return home. During this time, Julia continued to operate the funeral home, in addition to working at Rays Dry Cleaners to supplement their income.

When Jesse Ray returned home, the couple purchased the former Asheville Colored Hospital, on Biltmore Avenue and moved the family and the business to the new location.  The family grew in the late forties and early fifties with the addition of three sons.

Despite their success, the Rays did not escape the humiliation of discrimination and racism. Bottles were constantly thrown at their business/home and verbal racial slurs were directed at their children. Julia guided her children to stand tall and proud and not to lower their standard of grace and poise to those who would affront them.

As their funeral business grew, Julia and Jesse were able to direct their energy to community service. Julia was the first African American woman to serve on the Board of Trustees of Mission Hospital, was on the first Advisory Board for OLLI at UNC Asheville, assisted with the establishment of the Goombay Festival through the YMI and played an integral role in the racial integration and growth of the YWCA. She and Jesse also received numerous awards for community and civic service.  In 2012, the NC Funeral Directors Association honored Julia as the oldest living female funeral director.

Julia has set a standard that serves as an inspiration to all.  Her advice is to work hard and inch along. She states, “It is not what you look like, it is how you act”.

John and Hazel Robinson

John and Hazel Robinson

John and Hazel Robinson are founders of the Montford Park Players. They are fondly referred to as the Grand Old Couple. These loving people served, and continue to inspire, countless individuals. The lives of children and adults from all social strata have been greatly enriched by the Robinsons who served as teachers, advisers and mentors. Their influence has led many to pursue careers in the performing arts.

Hazel was born on May 4, 1926 in Bogue Chitto, Mississippi. John was born November 15, 1923 in Stillwater, Minnesota. Hazel’s childhood was spent in Mississippi and North Carolina. Hazel’s mother brought her to Asheville to be close to her father, a WWI Veteran who was in and out of the VA Hospital in Oteen. He died when Hazel was five, her mother remarried when she was seven and Hazel became a big sister to four half-brothers.

John spent the majority of his childhood in Long Prairie, Minnesota with his parents and two sisters until the family moved to Seattle when John was seventeen.

Hazel attended school in Black Mountain and graduated from Montreat High School at the age of fifteen. She was accepted at East Carolina Teachers College (ECTC) in Greenville NC and planned to stay two years until she could apply to Chapel Hill.  However, her involvement in the school’s theatrical activities led to her making the decision to stay for a third year. She enrolled in Chapel Hill during WWII and became fully immersed in the theater and dramatics. Upon graduation, Hazel received a Rockefeller Scholarship to extend her studies at Chapel Hill.  Instead, Hazel married her first husband.  They soon moved to Florida, where they began a family. Hazel stayed busy running the family household and raising their three children. She never did find time to work in theater while living in Ft. Meyers.

John attended the public schools in Long Prairie and graduated High School in 1941.  He spent a year at the University of Washington, majoring in math, with a minor in physics and chemistry.  He joined the Merchant Marines during WWII and following his service, taught school for a year. Due to the inadequate salary of a school teacher, John changed course, enrolled at University and chose to major in statistical analysis. He left the university in 1951 and headed to LA to study a new theory he became interested in.

Both Hazel and John were avid readers of Astounding Analog Science Fiction of Fact, a very popular magazine during the 1940’s and 50’s. The magazine introduced the Dianetics Theory proposed by L.Ron Hubbard. A series of separate events

landed John and Hazel’s husband in Phoenix AZ. There, a group of like-minded people had converged to explore Hubbard’s theories. When Hazel and the children arrived in Phoenix, it wasn’t long before her marriage dissolved and she and John became a couple. They were married in Mexico in 1954 and had son in 1957.  

Following a series of relocations, the family landed in the Montford community in Asheville in 1971, where they were instrumental in revitalizing the neighborhood. John worked for the Beacon Manufacturing Plant in Swannanoa and became the head of general accounting. Hazel was busy raising the children, but also wanted to reconnect to the theater. At that time the two venues for theatrical productions in Asheville were the Asheville Community Theater and Tanglewood. Whenever there was an opportunity to work in theater Hazel did so, including a position as Technical Director at ACT. Her powers of persuasion failed to get the one Shakespeare production there she hoped for.

During a visit to John’s mother, the couple attended an outdoor theatrical production. Hazel commented “We should have something like this in Asheville”.  John added that the park near them in Montford would be the perfect place and Hazel agreed. Of course, it would be a Shakespeare production. This was the spark that ignited their fiery determination. It would eventually lead to the idea becoming a reality. The task was monumental, but following discussions with city and county leaders, the city agreed to the location and to purchase lumber for the stage. With the added funding of $50 from John and Hazel’s grocery money, the Montford Park Players was born in 1973. The first production was As You Like It. Fifty people attended opening night, the rest is history.

Four decades since it’s inception, the Montford Park Players has grown to become a 501(c)3 nonprofit and expanded to a year-round season with shows at the Masonic Temple. In 2012, the Montford Park Players celebrated its 40th season as North Carolina’s original outdoor Shakespeare Festival as well as gaining fame as the longest running Shakespeare Festival in the state.

The Robinson’s legacy has a solid future. The benefits to the Asheville community are far reaching, encompassing locals who are involved in productions as well as visitors that travel to Asheville for the Shakespeare Festival experience. All from the spark of an idea, $50 of their grocery money and the adventurous spirits that pushed Hazel and John to act on their dream.