Report by Director of Development Tami Ruckman:
This past Sunday, at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on the campus of UNC Asheville, a very special ceremony was held to honor four of Asheville’s “Living Treasures.” Spring 2013 Designees included Thelma Porter, Julia Ray, and John and Hazel Robinson. These four individuals join only 13 other individuals who have been named as Living Treasures.
Julia Ray was nominated by the YWCA because of her involvement with the YWCA of Asheville as the Black and White branches integrated. Julia remembers attending events at the Phyllis Wheatley YWCA from the time she came to Asheville.
In 1954, the election of Lucille Burton—the first Black member of the Central YWCA board of directors—put the YWCA on what proved to be a long path towards integration. Black and White branches of the Asheville YWCA finally merged, moving into the formerly Black facility in 1970. With this merge, the YWCA of Asheville became the first integrated YWCA in the South. Thelma Caldwell, then acting Director, became the first Black YWCA Executive Director in the South, and the second in the nation.
In 1976, determined to carry on the work of Thelma Caldwell, twenty-two Black former YWCA board members including Julia formed the YWCA Booster Club to supplement the current Board’s efforts and in particular to be a support to the first Black board president, Ollie Reynolds. This group supported the work of the YW in myriad ways up until only a few years ago.
Julia Pauline Greenlee Ray was born in Marion, NC in 1914. She graduated from Barber-Scotia College in Concord and later attended the University of Pittsburgh. After graduation and before going to Pittsburgh she came back to Marion. While there she would visit her aunt in Asheville because Marion had “little social opportunity.” Because the South was still segregated at that time blacks “made their own social events”. They able to meet in restaurants or bars so they met at each other’s homes and churches.
Both of Julia’s parents were masters of their crafts. Julia’s father was a well-known ornamental plasterer and her mother was a seamstress and needle worker. Julia learned her intricate sewing skills from her mother. Julia won numerous awards for her cross-stitch.
Julia met her husband Jesse Ray when his mother showed him a picture of a beautiful young woman in the Pittsburgh Courier, a nationally circulated newspaper for Blacks. Her picture was on the front page. Julia had been accepted to the University of Pittsburgh and was attending college there. He decided to write to her When Julia visited Asheville, she had the chance to meet Jesse at the home of a cousin. Julia decided not to return to Pittsburg, but married Jesse instead. They were married for 59 years until his passing in 1994.
After WWII, the Rays purchased the Asheville Colored Hospital at the corner of Biltmore Avenue and Charlotte Street, and began Jesse Ray Funeral Home. They ran this business successfully for many years. Early on, the lower level served as the funeral home and the upper floor as the family residence.
Julia was the first African-American on the Board of Trustees of Mission Hospital, and served for 8 years as a trustee of UNC Asheville, appointed by the Governor. She served on the first board of the NC Center for Creative Retirement at UNC Asheville. She also served on the Friends of the YMI and helped to establish the Goombay Festival.
In 2003, the YMI rededicated their auditorium to honor Julia and Jesse. In 2007, Julia received the annual Mission/MAHEC Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Lifetime Achievement Award in recognition of her pioneering service to the Asheville medical community. In 2012, Julia traveled to Las Vegas to receive than award from the National Funeral Directors Association proclaiming her a Living Legend of Funeral Service for her 74 years of service.
Julia will celebrate her 99th birthday this October. We are immeasurably grateful to her for years of service to the YWCA of Asheville.