Norma Wright Garcia was more interested in learning about history than in making it. In the process, though, she managed to do both.
Garcia, the first African-American female to earn an undergraduate degree from NC State, died Monday in a small town in Eastern North Carolina not far from the Sampson County farm where she grew up. She was 68.
Garcia had deep roots in Eastern North Carolina, where she was a public school teacher for 25 years. But she used education as a way to explore the world, to learn about different cultures and, almost as an afterthought, to make a bit of history herself.
Garcia’s sister, Nova Williams, says they grew up on a farm in Sampson County. Their father grew everything from cotton and tobacco to corn and cucumbers. Meanwhile, their mother, who had taught herself to read and write, insisted that her children learn to read. Williams says there was always a newspaper and books in the house.
“She would buy the newspaper for us to read, and we would read it when we were very young,” Williams says. “We would read everything we could get our hands on. When they were out in the field working, we would be in the house reading.”
Williams says her sister was fascinated by history, in part due to the family history that was evident in the nearby slave cemetery. Williams says that interest in history was what led Garcia to NC State. “She had studied so much about history that she wanted to major in history,” Williams says. “That’s why she decided on State.”
NC State was not quite ready for Garcia, though. There was no housing available for women at NC State in 1962, according to a story about Garcia in the 2007 issue of Accolades, a magazine of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences. So Garcia began her college career at St. Augustine’s College in Raleigh, moving to NC State when the university opened its first dorm for women in 1964.
If she had any difficulties as the only African-American woman on campus, you wouldn’t know it from Garcia. In the 2007 article, Garcia said her new classmates were friendly to her. The first male African-American students had enrolled at NC State about a decade earlier, and NC State had hired its first black instructor in 1962.
“We were all new, and it was the first year for the women’s dorm,” she said. “I never felt out of place. I met people in the dorm, in my classes, in the cafeteria. What brought us together was what we had in common, not our skin color.”
Nova Williams says her sister was not thinking about being a trailblazer when she went to NC State. “Oh, no, she never complained about that,” Williams says. “She said she would always stay busy reading.”
Garcia did recall one classmate who refused to sit next to her and then stopped coming to class in protest of Garcia’s presence there. Garcia’s response? “Fine, you’ll fail.”
Garcia took advantage of all the cultural offerings available on campus, saying later that her time at NC State helped shape her world view. “I met a lot of people from other countries who I never would have met had I stayed on the farm,” she said. “My experiences at NC State made me more aware and interested in the world around me.”
Garcia also caught the travel bug, making a solo trip to Mexico after graduation. But not before taking time to learn Spanish. She later earned a master’s degree in German from Wake Forest University and lived in Germany for six months. She treasured her travels around the world.
“My travels have taught me so much, and become of history major, I’ve been able to appreciate the beauty of Italy, Rome, and the Vatican, the art of Paris, and the vibrancy of Honduras so much more since I know what I am looking for when I go,” she said.
But Garcia always returned home to Eastern North Carolina, where she taught social studies, history and Spanish at various schools in Halifax and Sampson counties. She taught Spanish at Union High School in Rose Hill from 1998 to 2003.
Williams says Garcia encouraged her students to go to college, frequently giving them books and correcting them when they spoke incorrectly. “She encouraged so many folks,” Williams says.
Williams says her sister had fond memories of her time at NC State, and the opportunities it gave her to explore the world and teach other children from rural North Carolina.
“She wanted people to know that she was the first black female to graduate from NC State,” Williams says. “She was very proud of that.”
Garcia is survived by two sisters. The funeral will be at 2:30 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 15, at Roseville Baptist Church in Willard, N.C. Burial will be at the church cemetery.