Dr. Maxine Mimms, best known for founding the Tacoma Campus of The Evergreen State College, worked as a teacher, social worker, educator, administrator, trainer, professor, mentor, consultant, public speaker, and as a mother, and even held a position at the U.S. Department of Labor in the Women's Bureau. To start Evergreen Tacoma, as the campus is commonly known, she gathered people around her kitchen table and figured out how to best meet them where they were on their educational journey. She became known for her ability to look for the genius in everyone. The rigorous and well-defined framework of Evergreen State College's Tacoma Campus was the product of Mimms's Ph.D. studies. Her 1977 doctoral dissertation developed the underlying points from which the campus would operate. After retiring from Evergreen, Mimms created the Maxine Mimms Academies for children who had been suspended or expelled from school, served as a consultant for other schools attempting to craft their own approach to addressing disparities in education, and continued to dedicate her life to the service of others.
Dr. Maxine Buie Mimms was born in Newport News, Virginia, on March 4, 1928. Her mother, Isabella Buie (1891-1953), was a teacher before schools were desegregated. It was her parents' example of crowding people around their kitchen table for study and deep conversations that would later be replicated when Maxine started the Evergreen Tacoma campus. Maxine's father, Benson Ebenezer Buie (1892-1965), followed the teachings of the political leader Marcus Garvey (1887-1940). Garvey created the Universal Negro Improvement Association and believed, among other things, that the displaced people of the black diaspora should return to Africa.
According to historian Lori Larson, Maxine's early years provided the philosophical grounding that greatly shaped the trajectory of her career. Her parents instilled Mimms with racial pride from an early age and tried to shield her from potentially dehumanizing experiences that often came along with growing up black in the Jim Crow south. The Buie family lived near Hampton University and would often go to see black orators speak on the campus. During those trips, Mimms was exposed to the lectures of Howard Thurman, a mentor of Martin Luther King Jr.
In addition to her parents' efforts, Mimms grew up in a neighborhood where everyone worked together to make up for the subpar conditions in segregated public schools. In their community, it was ingrained that everyone would go on to college. Mimms went to Virginia Union University, a historically black university, and there she learned "how to get words to make an image" (Larson, 6), met Martin Luther King Jr. (1929-1968), and completed her bachelor's degree in 1950. After graduating, Mimms moved to Detroit and began working as a social worker.
While there, Maxine met and married her husband, Jack Mimms (d. 2009), and completed her master's degree at Wayne State University. Maxine later completed her Ph.D. in educational administration from the Union Graduate School in San Francisco. She called her Ph.D. a "Ph.We" because her degree was heavily utilized as a tool of community liberation through her work, which centered around utilizing education to enable the community to overcome the oppression it faced. Her dissertation, "Higher Education: A Pedagogical and Curricular Design for Adult Black Americans," was completed in 1977. In it, she explored the foundational pieces necessary to create a college that met the needs of black adults. Mimms had five focus areas that informed her pedagogy and curriculum. She believed that black adult learners needed to understand the impact that their history has on them, the people that they are afraid of, their identity as a group, the intellectual limitations of a bachelors degree, and that their community had "people who think like Plato, paint like Picasso, and meditate like Buddha" within it (Washington, 28).
Maxine and Jack relocated from Detroit to the state of Washington in 1953 when Jack secured a position with the Boeing Company. First settling in Bellevue, Maxine started her career in education. She taught in Seattle's traditionally black elementary schools until she moved to the Kirkland public schools in 1963. The couple had three children, Ted, Toni, and Kenneth, and Maxine worked as an elementary school teacher until 1964. From 1964 to 1968, she worked in administration for the Seattle Public Schools. She was very active in the Seattle community outside of her work hours. She worked as a consultant on development initiatives in Seattle's Central District and on the desegregation of Seattle's schools. After the deeply impactful deaths of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy in 1968, her efforts shifted to applying liberation theology in her own work. Liberation theologies provide situation-specific strategies for overcoming systems of oppression. This new purpose would later guide her decision to create the Tacoma Evergreen campus. With Evergreen Tacoma, Mimms analyzed the barriers that working black adults faced in going to college and created a specific response to address those barriers.
In 1968, Mimms moved to a different role in the Seattle Public Schools, becoming the director of in-service training. Though schools were officially already desegregated, children were supposed to attend their neighborhood schools. Racist housing policies created segregated neighborhoods, leading to de facto segregation in the schools. As such, desegregating the schools in policy did only a little to fix the systemic inequalities of Seattle's school system.
Seattle civil-rights leaders began their efforts by trying to explain to the Seattle School Board why the schools needed to be integrated, but met with little success. It was not until the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) partnered with the Congress for Racial Equality (CORE) and the Central Area Civil Rights Committee in 1966 that the school district was receptive to taking action. Many in Seattle's black community wanted a plan to integrate the schools and wanted teachers to be trained in how to support students of color who would be transferred to schools in white neighborhoods. They leveraged the potential of a boycott to get Seattle Public Schools to meet their conditions. Mimms took over as the director of in-service training and worked to make sure teachers could adequately support children of color who now attended predominantly white schools.
In 1969, Mimms moved to Washington, D.C., to be the special assistant to the director of the Women's Bureau of the Wage and Labor Standards Administration in the United States Department of Labor. President Richard Nixon (1913-1994) had brought on Arthur Fletcher (1924-2005), a Republican candidate for lieutenant governor of Washington in 1968, to promote affirmative action in the awarding of federal contracts. Fletcher requested that Mimms follow him to Washington, D.C., and she did. Mimms's superior at the Women's Bureau, Elizabeth Duncan Koontz (1919-1989), was the first black woman to be put in charge of the Women's Bureau and was also the top female official in Nixon's administration. At that time, American society's perception of women and the roles they could fill was changing. In 1970, Mimms spoke as a representative of the Women's Bureau at the Conference of Presbyterian U.S. Women in Montreat, North Carolina. Mimms discussed the impending changes and named women's liberation theory as the catalyst. Women's liberation theory was birthed out of the civil rights movement and is complicated by the intersections of gender and race for women of color, black women specifically, in America. As women worked toward being seen as equals to white men in society, the Women's Bureau focused on understanding and eradicating race and gender-based discrimination in the workplace.
By 1972, Mimms had left government work, returned to Washington state, and begun teaching at the state's newly formed institution, The Evergreen State College. Although the campus was in Olympia, Mimms settled farther north in the traditionally black Hilltop neighborhood of Tacoma. Hilltop faced many of the same patterns of segregation and disinvestment as Seattle's Central District. Evergreen was highly experimental in its modus operandi and provided neither tests nor grades. Teaching public policy and social theory at Evergreen forced Mimms to grow as a person and be less rigid. Of her time on the Olympia campus, Mimms said:
"They had green hair. They had on robes. They had dogs. I had never seen anything like that in my life. It's the best thing that ever happened to me because Evergreen helped me to grow up and mature and not be so judgmental. When you're confined you can be judgmental about stuff you don't even know about" (Larson, 3).
That being said, it was still emotionally conflicting for her to work every day educating people who did not look like her and then return home to her community for whom higher education was inaccessible. Mimms did not like that the system was inaccessible and she herself was acting as an agent of that system.
One day, she went out to breakfast at Browne's Star Grill in Hilltop and overheard two women nearby talking about how Evergreen's Olympia campus would never meet their needs. Mimms approached the women and that was the humble beginning of the Evergreen Tacoma campus. After that encounter, Mimms and her colleague and neighbor Dr. Elizabeth (Betsy) Diffendal, a white anthropology professor at Evergreen who also lived in Hilltop, started the Tacoma program off the books.
Mimms and Diffendal held class around Mimms's kitchen table. These seminars started in 1972 -- the same year that Mimms was hired and one year after the Olympia campus opened for enrollment. Students would register for the Olympia campus and, in reality, only study in Tacoma with Mimms and Diffendal. Students studied what they were interested in, and Mimms paid for the operational costs out of pocket.
In 1982, the Evergreen Tacoma campus was finally formalized with Mimms as the program's director, and the motto "Enter to Learn, Depart to Serve." The first classes in the now-official Tacoma campus began in September 1983. Mimms's overarching goal with Evergreen Tacoma was to provide an educational experience that would attract and retain black students from the Hilltop neighborhood. She aimed to create a school where adult learners could come into the campus to learn to lead and, after graduation, would move their community toward liberation through that leadership.
While Evergreen's mascot was a geoduck, the Tacoma Campus prominently featured the Adinkra symbol of Sankofa. A Sankofa is a bird symbol that represents the "importance of learning from the past," translating literally to "return and get it" (Williams, 61-63). Mimms waited until the Tacoma program was fully developed within its unique framework before getting it formally recognized as its own campus. She was clear about her goals from the outset and that allowed for the Tacoma campus to actually reflect the population it was created to serve. In an interview with Kim Washington, Mimms said:
"Legacy is about guerilla warfare when you are talking about Black leadership. Until somebody comes out ready to fight and ready to speak outside of the box and take the consequences of the whip take the consequences of the whip publicly. They will say, I'm whipping you and you say But this ain't nothing but a bunch of welts. I can keloid [scar] and I can go, Oh my goodness, you can go on about your business. Until you can find that person that follows in that sequence, forget Black leadership. We need guerrillas out there to deal with the racism and the politics of sexism to be successful. Unless you have someone that can do the guerilla warfare for the community and use her ability to force the community to be recognized, then forget Black leadership. You will see when and where I enter … but unless you are doing guerilla warfare … it is the HOW I enter. Unless you can incubate on the how you will always be purchased" (Washington, 60-61).
Mimms's understanding of what was necessary to create a foundation of strong black leadership enabled her to create a version of Evergreen Tacoma that could go on without her.
Dr. Mimms retired from the role of director in 1990, handing the program over to her protégé Dr. Wintonnette Joye Hardiman. Though she had retired from Evergreen, Mimms continued working, engaging in new ideas, and serving others. For decades, her opinion had been regarded highly in the black communities of Tacoma and Seattle and in education circles. She was consulted often about her opinions on and solutions to current issues in public policy throughout Washington. She was interviewed for articles, featured in podcasts, invited to speak at many events, and hosted her own programs over the years.
Mimms's most ambitious endeavor in retirement was the establishment of the Maxine Mimms Academies. She started the program when a community member approached her for advice on how to manage her child's expulsion from school. While the rules for expulsion vary in different districts, in Tacoma, an expulsion was essentially a long suspension. Being expelled from one school in the Tacoma Public School system meant that the student could not go back to any school in the district until the expulsion order expired. The Maxine Mimms Academies program, started in 2004, was created to mitigate the amount of disruption an expulsion would cause for a child's learning journey.
The program's staff works with children while they are out of school and then leverages the influence of the program to get them back into school. Mimms applied the same guiding principles used to create the Evergreen Tacoma campus to the Maxine Mimms Academies' work with children. Her own background of being supported in her educational pursuits outside of school by her community gave Mimms a foundational understanding of how important community can be to the learning process. The program functions to help children learn to self-regulate, to see themselves within the curriculum, and to increase their success in the classroom. Customized curriculum options include a hydroponic indoor urban gardening program, job training, STEAM (a curriculum combining science, technology, engineering, art, and mathematics), and college preparatory classes.
Mimms also focused on enriching the community with arts in her retirement. In collaboration with twin sisters Dr. Lesa Terry, a violinist and scholar, and Mona Terry, a harpist and pianist, Mimms began facilitating an annual concert, Let the Strings Speak, in 2006. According to its website, the purpose of Let the Strings Speak is to feed the souls of listeners by creating an intergenerational program of music from the black diaspora. Mimms served on the advisory board of T.U.P.A.C., the Tacoma Urban Performing Arts Center, established to "provide our most deserving racially and socioeconomically diverse youth with world-class opportunities to achieve Artistic Excellence in the performing arts" ("T.U.P.A.C. ...").
Another arts program, the Living Arts Cultural Heritage Center in Bremerton, came about, according to an oral history done by Lori Larson with Dr. Mimms, due to conversations in Mimms's living room and the cultural preservation work that she was partaking in. The center opened in a temporary location in 2017, while working toward acquiring a permanent home that would feature an official Maxine Mimms Visioning Room.
A 1997 article about Mimms in Essence referred to her as "a feisty and outspoken academic whose unorthodox style has often ruffled feathers in the placid Pacific Northwest" ("School for Life"). Mimms's "unorthodox style" has led to policy change and a new institution, and has taken her places most people could never imagine. The American folk singer Odetta (1930-2008) was friends with Mimms and came to teach at Evergreen Olympia in 1989. When Mimms turned 90 in 2018, Oprah Winfrey (b. 1954), who was introduced to Mimms by Dr. Maya Angelou (1928-2014), sent her 90 white hydrangeas from her garden. Mimms consulted on the development of Oprah's Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. Angelou was initially invited to Evergreen by Mimms, whom she called her "sister friend" (Larson, 18). In a 2007 speech at Evergreen, Angelou said, "I know that Maxine Mimms is a rainbow in the clouds" (Larson, 19).
In her retirement, Mimms traveled on seven separate two-week-long mission trips to Kenya through Cultural Reconnections. She had been to Africa twice previously as a tourist, but Cultural Reconnections is instead centered on immersion in Kenyan culture. The program focused on "mutuality, colleagueship, and respect" and tried to find things that the black mission participants returning to their ancestral home had in common with the people who remained there (Fox). The observational journeys steered attendees toward a more complete understanding of self. For Mimms, the trips to Kenya changed her relationship with aging. Seeing how the elders adapted to aging in Kenya further encouraged her to resist allowing herself to become complacent and let others wait on her.
Mimms received many accolades for her work throughout her life. Some of the highlights include the Maxine Mimms Appreciation Day put on by the City of Tacoma on September 19, 1982; being honored with the first Sustainable Community Outstanding Leadership Award in 2001 and Tacoma's Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Community Service Award in 2017; and being presented with a key to the City of Tacoma at her 90th birthday party in 2018. Even with all of the awards and celebrations in her honor, Maxine Mimms's greatest honor is truly in the many lives she touched. In 2018, the Lyceum Hall at Evergreen Tacoma was renamed the Dr. Maxine Mimms & Dr. W. Joye Hardiman Lyceum Hall. By 2018, more than 2,700 students had graduated from the Tacoma campus. Generations have made it through the program and helped shape the community with their leadership, as Mimms intended from the beginning. The number of lives affected by Mimms speaks to the impact that a life of service can have.