Champion of education
By Shanderia K. Posey
Ollye Brown Shirley, Ph.D., described as a Mississippi icon in education and civil rights, died Sept. 10, of natural causes at her home in Jackson.
Family and friends of Shirley, 82, will cherish her memories and impact on Jackson and the state during a memorial service at 11 a.m. Sept. 17, at the Jackson Medical Mall. Visitation is set for 1-7 p.m. Sept. 16, at Peoples Funeral Home, 886 N. Farish St., in Jackson. Family hour begins at 6 p.m.
Shirley was the widow of Dr. Aaron Shirley, founder of the Jackson Medical Mall. Dr. Aaron Shirley died Nov. 26, 2014. They had four children.
Individually and as a couple, the Shirleys made a huge impact on the Jackson community. They are widely known for their work during the Civil Rights Movement. And while Dr. Aaron Shirley’s passion was eliminating health disparities in the community, Ollye Shirley’s passion was education.
A Tougaloo College alumna, Shirley was a former board member of Jackson Public Schools, former chair of the Mississippi State Conference NAACP Education Committee and was former state and regional coordinator of PBS. She’s been recognized numerous times for her accomplishments and is considered a mentor to many, including Wilma Mosely Clopton, who produced, wrote and directed a documentary about Shirley titled “In Spite of It All: The Ollye Brown Shirley Story.” The documentary details how at a young age Shirley was introduced to the educational disparities African Americans faced.
Nevertheless, she was accepted to Tougaloo College at age 15. She later interned for Dr. T. R. M. Howard, who was a leader in civil rights and a leader for economic empowerment for blacks. Shirley’s association with Howard would cost her a job in Jackson. Later she became a teacher at Lanier High School and served as JPS Board president for 15 years.
In her role at PBS in the early 1970s, she worked to allow “Sesame Street” to broadcast in Mississippi. Initially the children’s television program was not permitted to air in the state because it showed black and white children together. By 1971, “Sesame Street” was broadcast on Mississippi ETV – today known as Mississippi Public Broadcasting. “She incurred many obstacles … some life threatening,” Clopton said.
“But out of that she was an outstanding model in an oppressive society. She served as a beacon of change. She never stopped making a difference. “She was not afraid to speak out when she noticed injustice occurring. She passed that on to me. If not for her, I could not have continued my career.”
Clopton has known Shirley for so long, she can’t quite remember exactly when they met. But she did say, “It was like two old souls meeting. “I’m gonna miss her … the delight in her eyes … her spunk. I don’t see that in other people.”
Tougaloo College President Beverly Hogan has known Shirley – her mentor – for more than 40 years. She said Shirley nicknamed her, “her oldest daughter.”
“She was a compelling and transforming champion of education for children. She believed in equity for children,” Hogan said. “Even when she retired, she continued to work with children.”
Hogan describes her mentor as “outspoken, courageous, a loyal friend and a Renaissance woman who was a devoted wife and mother. We are going to miss her very much.” One of the Shirley’s children – Terrence M. Shirley – posted a photo on his Facebook page of his parents acknowledging they are back together again. Ollye Shirley may have appeared by some to walk in the shadows of her husband’s talents, but she was actually walking with him. Clopton said, “In their relationship, it was clear they were supportive of each other. They were definitely a team.”
Shanderia K. Posey can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.