Robert E. Lee Elementary School, located on Judy Street in Jackson, is now officially called Shirley Elementary. School district officials plan to change the physical sign soon. (Photo courtesy of Jackson Public Schools)
Robert E. Lee Elementary School, located on Judy Street in Jackson, is now officially called Shirley Elementary. School district officials plan to change the physical sign soon. (Photo courtesy of Jackson Public Schools)
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With new name, public school venerates Shirleys' memory

Published on Monday, December 28, 2020

By: Gary Pettus,

A public school has been re-christened to honor two crusaders for freedom civil rights, replacing a name that invokes slavery and civil war.

By a Dec. 15 vote, the Jackson Public Schools board of trustees paid tribute to the legacy of the late husband-and-wife couple, physician Dr. Aaron Shirley and educator Dr. Ollye Shirley, surrendering the former eponym of Robert E. Lee Elementary School.

Dr. Aaron Shirley and Dr. Ollye Shirley attend a gala together in 2008. (Photo courtesy of Terrence Shirley)
Dr. Aaron Shirley and his wife, Dr. Ollye Shirley, attend a gala together in 2008. (Photo courtesy of Terrence Shirley)

Aaron Shirley, in particular, forged a long association with the University of Mississippi Medical Center beginning in 1965, when he became the institution’s first black resident, and thereby, its first African American learner, three years after James Meredith inaugurated integration at the University of Mississippi.

Together, Aaron and Ollye Shirley triumphed over policies that denied adequate health care and an equal education to impoverished and disaffected Mississippians, many of whom were black.

Portrait of Terrence Shirley
Terrence Shirley

“That is poetic justice,” said Terrence Shirley, one of their four children, when asked about the school’s name change. “It’s the irony of it all,” said Shirley, cancer research administrator for the Cancer Center and Research Institute at UMMC.

Shirley Elementary, originally named for the Confederate army general and commander, is not the first JPS school to sever an allusion to the Southern rebellion. Jefferson Davis, 19th century president of the Confederacy, is another Rebel name that fell, in 2017, yielding Barack Obama Magnet School, namesake of America’s first black president.

And Power APAC, which commemorates a Confederate colonel, will become the Ida B. Wells Elementary School, celebrating the Holly Springs native known for her achievements as a journalist, educator and civil rights leader.

This month the withdrawal of “Lee” became official with the trustees’ vote, two weeks after Pamela Franklin, JPS assistant superintendent, read the resolution before the board as part of a formal process.

“I think that’s incredibly powerful and is exactly what we should be doing in terms of the entire debate around monuments, memorials, how we want to represent our community in the sites that have such importance to us,” trustee Dr. Robert Luckett responded at the December 1 meeting.

“And so it was a great pleasure to watch and to be a small part of it. What a great day for us.”

“Shirley” constituted one of six choices for the name change; after a public vote, three nominees still stood, until the students themselves made the final pick, Terrence Shirley said.

“They had to do homework on the candidates,” said Shirley, who, with his brother Kevin and sisters Christal Shirley Porter and Erin Shirley Orey, a project manager at UMMC, witnessed the December 1 and December 15 meetings virtually.

“They picked it based on what they learned, not on: ‘Now, here’s three names, throw a dart and pick one.’”

What they learned is that, 100 years after the Civil War’s end, Aaron Shirley conquered a Medical Center redoubt when he was accepted as a trainee by the late Dr. Blair Batson, the chair of pediatrics, who, as he would tell Shirley years later, “didn’t ask anybody’s permission.”

The following year, in 1966, the School of Medicine enrolled its first black student.

Portrait of Dr. James Keeton

“Aaron was almost the James Meredith of the medical world,” said former Medical Center leader, Dr. James Keeton, who befriended Shirley when their residencies overlapped.  

“Imagine the pressure he was under, being the only black resident, and the first,” said Keeton, UMMC vice chancellor emeritus for health affairs and dean emeritus of the School of Medicine.

A Columbus native, Keeton attended a high school named for Stephen D. Lee, a Rebel officer and distant relative of Robert E. Lee.

“Dr. Shirley deserves his name on a school,” said Keeton, whom Shirley called “Buster,” after the silent film star, Buster Keaton.

“Years later, when I became the vice chancellor, we had a very honest, good relationship. He worked hard to do something about health care, particularly in the schools. He was helpful with us putting a health clinic at Lanier High School in Jackson.

“He was strong-willed, and we might have differed on our approach, but we always found a way to get there. He was a gentleman and a good doctor. He took good care of the babies.”

By the time he arrived at UMMC in 1965, Aaron Shirley had worked for years as a general practitioner in Vicksburg, where the Gluckstadt native and Meharry Medical College graduate was barred from seeing patients in the white-run hospitals. There, he and Ollye Shirley risked their lives to encourage black voter registration amid the climate of Jim Crow.

At one point, the couple built a two-story house in a cul-de-sac, the better to keep an eye on would-be assailants, Terrence Shirley said. “My father taught me and Kevin how to shoot.” For their father’s safety on his house calls, they would, in the literal sense, ride shotgun.

“We all learned how to survive and how to thrive in that environment, how to handle ourselves,” Terrence Shirley said.

The Shirleys endured antagonism well beyond the 1960’s, especially when Ollye Shirley, a member and then president of the JPS school board, took on the Confederate flag and Rebel mascot of Forest Hill High School.

Like her husband, Ollye Brown Shirley discovered early the confounding eccentricities of the South’s racial code, as she recalled in a 2010 documentary, "In Spite of It All: The Ollye Brown Shirley Story.”

Brought up in Mound Bayou, she watched as her mother fed biscuits and grits to hungry white kids who came by their house to catch the school bus. When the bus arrived, the white kids got on, but the black kids had to walk – to their own schools. 

She never forgot that, using such memories to fuel her passion for equality in education. After graduating from Tougaloo College, where she met her future husband, Ollye Shirley eventually taught at Lanier High before leading the JPS board and pushing for a major referendum to expand and improve the district’s schools.

As a state, and later, regional coordinator for PBS, she helped introduce Mississippi’s children to Big Bird after the state imposed what was either a short-lived ban or postponement of “Sesame Street” because of its integrated cast.

At the same time, Aaron Shirley was helping improve conditions for the long-neglected residents of the state by, among other things:

 Even before the mall overhaul, Aaron Shirley received, in 1993, a MacArthur Fellowship, or “Genius Grant,” for his devotion to community work and public health.

In 2013, a year, to the month, before his death, the Association of American Medical Colleges named him the recipient of the Herbert W. Nickens Award for promoting justice in medical education and health care parity.

Portrait of Dr. LouAnn Woodward

“Dr. Shirley was a pioneer who spent his life searching for creative ways to make health care more accessible to the most vulnerable,” said Dr. LouAnn Woodward, vice chancellor for health affairs dean of the School of Medicine at UMMC, who nominated Shirley for the Nickens Award.

“He and Dr. Ollye Shirley lived and taught their convictions, and I’m grateful for what they have meant to our state. Naming a school in their honor adds to an already rich and distinguished legacy that’s visible all around us.”

The tributes didn’t end with Aaron Shirley’s passing. In March 2015, the National Association of Community Health Centers presented its first Dr. Aaron Shirley Courage in Social Justice Award in Washington, D.C., 18 months before the death of his wife.

“My siblings and I were involved in everything our parents were involved in, at a very early age,” Terrence Shirley said. “We had conversations with them at the breakfast table: what was going on in their lives, their expectations for us.

“Even today, we try to improve things for people who are less fortunate than us. It’s in our blood.”