Spiritual Leader, Community Activist

Rev. Dr. Donna Ruth King

Those who knew her say the Rev. Dr. Donna Ruth King was playful and down-to-earth. But she was also a fighter. After King and her family moved to the State College area in the mid-1980s, “my mother struggled a lot with the racism in the community. And I think that took a toll on her health,” says her son, Barry King ’97 H&HD. “She was always fighting.”

A community activist and social justice educator, King ’10 PhD Edu was affectionately known as “Mama King” to her students at Penn State. Barry says that because of his mother’s teaching and social justice efforts, the town is a more welcoming place. “She paved the way for [younger generations] to have a better experience,” he says. “[Fighting racism] was really her calling and her mission.”

After she retired as a lecturer of African American studies at Penn State, she dove into researching local Black history and led Underground Railroad walking tours in Bellefonte. “One of her favorite sayings was, ‘We have an obligation to educate the next generation about our ancestors.’ She often spoke about the wisdom of the elders,” says Mark Higgins, a Centre County commissioner and friend of King's.

She was also the pastor of St. Paul African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bellefonte, which was built before the Civil War and was part of the Underground Railroad. “Her work as a pastor, her concern for the members, and her concern for the physical structure of the church was tireless,” Higgins says.

King died Jan. 7, 2021. She is survived by her son; her husband, Barry; children Kimisse King, Kory King, and Kristall Vastardis; siblings Clifford Webb, Sandi Harrison, Gary Freemon, and Debbie Freemon; and six grandchildren. —Sarah Rafacz ’15 Com, ’15 Lib