NEWTON CROSSROADS — In a small rural community, in very humble beginnings, a future leader, teacher and encourager was born. Norma Wright Garcia was that person. From her humble upbringing, Garcia, friends and family say, became an inspiration to others, in particular the many students she taught. Garcia passed away on Jan. 9, 2012 at the age of 68.
She grew up in southern Sampson County and was very proud of her roots. In fact, she returned to them and lived out the last years of her life where she grew up.
Nova Williams, Garcia’s sister, said the family was raised on a farm. Their father grew everything from cotton and tobacco to corn and cucumbers.Their mother had to teach herself to read and write and was determined that her children would be able to do so also. “We always had a newspaper and books in the house,” expressed Williams. ““She would buy the newspaper for us to read, and we would read it when we were very young. 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’s heritage, evident in the nearby slave cemetery. Williams says that interest in history was what led Garcia to N.C. State. “She had studied so much about history that she wanted to major in history,” Williams says. “That’s why she decided on State.”
Garcia’s road to becoming the first African-American woman to graduate from N.C.S.U. with a degree, began at St. Augustine’s College. State had its first African-American man to enroll about a decade earlier than Garcia in 1962. There was not a women’s dorm at State in 1962 so Garcia attended St. Augustine until a women’s dorm open in 1964.
It appeared that Garcia was more interested in learning about history than in making it. In the process, though, she managed to do both. Because of her deep roots in Sampson, where she was a public school teacher for 25 years, 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.
If she had any difficulties as the only African-American woman on campus, you wouldn’t know it from Garcia, her sister notes. “We were all new, and it was the first year for the women’s dorm,” stated Garcia in an article written about her. “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.”
As a student, Garcia took advantage of all the cultural offerings available on campus, saying later that her time at 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 State made me more aware and interested in the world around me.”
The Sampsonian discovered travel and found that she loved to visit various places in the world. After graduation she went by herself to Mexico. She later received a master’s degree in German from Wake Forest University before moving to Germany for six months. Travel was a gift she treasured as she made her way around the world.
“My travels have taught me so much. 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,” asserted Garcia.
But Garcia always returned home to Sampson County. She taught social studies, history and Spanish at various schools in Halifax and Sampson counties. She taught Spanish at Union High School.
One of Garcia’s students, Nakachia Murphy Smutko, shared her feelings regarding her teacher and friend.
“I had Mrs. Garcia my senior year at Union for Spanish. She made us sing every day. She never let us be negative about anything. She would always encourage us telling us we could do anything if we would set our minds to it,” explained Smutko. “I always remember she was smiling and she never missed a day of school that year.”
The student shared that the compassion and care that Garcia showed to her students and everyone at school made her a very special person. “She would say to us, ‘Be yourself and don’t change for anyone else.’ Mrs. Garcia had a soft voice in which she spoke to everyone but she had earned respect of the staff and students. She always told us to make sure we go to college and get a good education. She lived what she believed and taught. She had persevered through a lot of adversity in her life to become a great teacher and an even better person,” asserted Smutko.
Williams says that her sister always encouraged her students to go to college, frequently giving them books and correcting them when they spoke incorrectly. “She encouraged so many folks.”
Although, Garcia made history in her lifetime, from her students, family and others it is apparent she was part of history as well, a history that will live on in the lives of those she touched, friends said.