Norma Wright Garcia, the first African-American female to earn an undergraduate degree from NC State, died Monday in a small town 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 to make a bit of history herself.
Garcia’s sister, Nova Williams, says they grew up on a farm where their father grew everything from cotton and tobacco to corn and cucumbers. Their mother, who had taught herself to read and write, insisted that her children learn to read.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
She also caught the travel bug, making a solo trip to Mexico after graduation after learning 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.
But Garcia always returned to North Carolina, where she taught social studies, history and Spanish at various schools in Halifax and Sampson counties, mentoring rural students. She taught Spanish at Union High School in Rose Hill from 1998 to 2003.
“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.”