Dr. Maxine Mimms: ‘My Life is Education’

The anticipation is palpable as the crowd rises to catch a glimpse of her. The P.A. system throbs with booming beats to introduce the guest of honor at her 90th birthday party. Dr. Maxine Mimms descends the stairs, surrounded by an entourage, and advances regally with a sparkling cane. She wears a huge white-brimmed hat decorated with cowrie shells. With a proud smile and grand wave, she meanders through the crowd, greeting old friends, touching children. Smartphones held high capture her charisma.

Widely known in African American circles, Maxine Buie Mimms is an educator and counselor who works with schools all over the United States — globally, too, including her friend Oprah Winfrey’s Leadership Academy for Girls in South Africa. She is best known, however, for her work as founder of The Evergreen State College’s Tacoma campus.

Maxine Mimms

Dr. Maxine Mimms celebrates her 90th birthday at The Evergreen State College Tacoma campus. Courtesy Lori Larson.

“Mimms is a feisty and outspoken academic whose unorthodox style has often ruffled feathers in the placid Pacific Northwest,” Essence magazine wrote in 1997. “Yet her provocative educational philosophy has also produced results.” When a visiting historian read her that line, she smiled and chuckled: “Put that in there. I would like that for my tombstone, too!”

In a cottage at water’s edge in rural Mason County, she often receives visitors. She is a teacher, a preacher and a healer. Her one-bedroom home serves as both classroom and sanctuary. It’s filled with African art, artifacts and photos. A slew of awards hide in the bathroom, perhaps so they won’t intimidate visitors. She may be flamboyant, but she is humble. Dr. Mimms has been on a mission to serve her whole life. She sees no reason why 90 should slow her down. “This phone rings 24/7,” says Isa Nichols, her confidant and dear friend. “She is solving the problems of the world sitting in that chair.”

An hour east, you will find Mimms’ legacy — or “longevity,” as she puts it — in a far more urban environment. As you enter The Evergreen State College building in Tacoma’s Hilltop neighborhood you are greeted by a bold, bright African mural. Just inside the door there’s a framed portrait of Dr. Mimms, donning a mortarboard, as founder and former executive director of the Tacoma program. She calls her Ph.D. a “Ph.WE” because her career has been dedicated to helping under-served, marginalized populations rise through education.

The events of 1968, often characterized as “The year that changed the world,” significantly impacted Mimms’ outlook on her role as a leader. “The murdering of a Martin Luther King and the Kennedys was very painful. But you have to re-image, ‘What does that mean in terms of you, Maxine?’” she says, framing the question rhetorically. “Well, I had to increase my studies. I had to look at theology. I had to absolutely say, ‘What does liberation theology mean to me? What does it mean for me to have met Martin?’ What privilege I had. I had to rise with confidence and do something about it. So in me, their farewells forced me to do a capital Hello. And in that, that’s why you have the Tacoma campus.”

Mimms joined the faculty of the fledgling Evergreen State College in Olympia in 1972. The innovative liberal arts school had opened the previous year, just four years after Governor Dan Evans and legislators signed off on legislation that recognized a need for a state college in the South Sound area. A huge cohort of Baby Boomers were departing high schools. Leaving tradition behind, Evergreen caused a stir by not giving traditional grades, gauging achievement instead with in-depth narrative evaluations. It prides itself on interdisciplinary courses that combine academic departments. Clearly, it was born out of the 1960s. The students it attracted proved it. The Evergreen State College Tacoma campus on 6th Avenue in 2018. The mural was a student project, designed with symbols that represent the different ethnic communities that have lived in the Hilltop neighborhood.

Maxine Mimms

The Evergreen State College Tacoma campus on 6th Avenue in 2018. The mural was a student project, designed with symbols that represent the different ethnic communities that have lived in the Hilltop neighborhood. Courtesy Lori Larson.

“When I got down here it blew me away it was so white,” Mimms remembers. “I had just left Washington, D.C., and I almost had a heart attack. I couldn’t believe I had participated in that much whiteness and that much clear blackness—and then come down here. 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.”

Mimms was commuting to the college’s sprawling Cooper Point campus from Tacoma, which at the time had two respected private colleges but no public institutions with affordable tuition other than community colleges and trade schools.* “Every bone in me would resist,” she remembers. “My soul was crying and sad because I was not able to work with people whose skin color looked like mine.” There she was, a self-described “middle-class African American woman, Southern-bred,” bringing her skills and body to “a European model” college. “I couldn’t do it.”

While eating at Browne’s Star Grill on MLK Way in Tacoma, she overheard two women talking about “a horrible woman” who left to teach in Olympia when she should be teaching her own community. Mimms approached them. “They were two black women. One had a child with sickle cell anemia, and she was wondering how she would ever be able to go back to school with all the responsibilities she had. These women had been saying there was no one in Tacoma in the four-year education system who would help people like them.”

She knew what she had to do.

Starting in 1972, Dr. Mimms and her neighbor, Dr. Betsy Diffendal, began teaching in their homes. Mimms would start her instruction in Tacoma at 5 a.m., leave for Evergreen at 8 and work in Olympia until 5. She kept up that schedule until 1984 when she started teaching full-time in Tacoma. Mimms would instruct students any way she could, anywhere she could, with whatever resources were available. Students registered for school in Olympia but she held classes in Tacoma. “That’s how I hid the students, because if I had gone and asked permission and worked with committees to start a campus it would have never happened. I’d still
be meeting committees. They came to my house every day. They brought their husbands and their children, their books and supplies. We filled up every chair and sofa in the living room. Sometimes there were 15 around the dining room table.”

Read the rest of this story on the Secretary of State’s website, here.


1968: The Year That Rocked Washington looks back at 1968 and its impact on Washington state through the stories of some remarkable people who lived through it. On college campuses, the campaign trail and evergreen peaks, Washingtonians were spurred to action. It was the year when Vietnam, civil rights, women’s liberation and conservation coalesced—the year when tragedy led the 6 o’clock news with numbing regularity. 1968 changed us in ways still rippling through our society a half century later. 1968: The Year That Rocked Washington features a collection of online stories and an exhibit at the Washington State Capitol in the fall of 2018. Legacy Washington documents the activism and aftershocks of a landmark year in world history.

For more information, visit www.sos.wa.gov/legacy/sixty-eight.

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