Celebrating Shirley Kimbrough’s Life

by | Mar 31, 2023

We at the Algebra Project were saddened by the news that longtime ally, mother, wife, and organizer Shirley Kimbrough passed away on January 28, 2023.

Shirley Kimbrough had the heart of an educator, community organizer, parent, caregiver, mentor and activist. Shirley’s heart was huge; and anyone who had the chance to meet her felt the warmth and purpose it exuded. So, in the mid-1980s when her path crossed with Algebra Project founder, Bob Moses, before there was an Algebra Project, something amazingly important transpired. Shirley’s presence and interactions with Bob and fellow parents helped to catalyze AP from an array of exceptional concepts, to a set of catalyzing expectations.

Shirley was committed to educational equity and justice outside her professional career. Along with other members of “The Village”, including her late husband Les Kimbrough, she was an active member of the King Open School community. She was a founding parent board member of The Algebra Project, helping support the implementation and teaching of algebra at the King Open School and beyond in the 1980s and 1990s. She remained a steadfast supporter of AP and the Young People’s Project, our sister organization, her entire life. Throughout the 21st century, she and her husband continued to support our work financially.

She had raised the question to parents about who should start studying algebra in grade 7 and thus elevated issues of equity and access and led to a commitment to have all students ‘at the table.’

– Khari Milner, Chair of the Board of Directors, The Algebra Project

Below is an excerpt from Maisha Moses’ words at Shirley Kimbrough’s memorial service:

Shirley was there for the beginning of the Algebra Project. My dad talked about this a lot. After the first year or two of his teaching math at the King Open school he wrote in his book, Radical Equations, “parents noticed that the attitude of their children toward math was changing. Something seemed to be different to the Milners, the Kimbroughs, the Jameses and others. I was primarily talking to parents like Liberty individually. Our children were in and out of each other’s homes. We were not an organization, but organized effort began to evolve out of our conversations. One result was that in 1984-85 a group of parents decided that decisions about studying algebra in the 7th and 8th grades would not rest solely with administrators and teachers. And during the spring of 1984, one of the parents, Shirley Kimbrough, sent out a letter to every parent with a child about to begin the 7th grade.

And here’s Shirley, in her own words: We had been meeting and discussing the academic challenges minority students face for some time. Generally, they were not doing as well as nonminority kids in math and science. Why? What should we expect of our children? A lot of parents had not taken algebra in middle school. And then there is attitude. I remember having this conversation with one parent – a white parent who taught at another school – “I don’t feel all children should take algebra,” she told me. I said, “Let’s find out from the parents themselves.”

Shirley’s letter asked two key questions: Do you think your child should do algebra? Do you think every child should do algebra?

It was these two questions that launched the Algebra Project, because of course every parent said yes to the first question, and because of that Algebra was offered to all 7th and 8th graders at the King Open, even though they didn’t all say yes to the second question.

There are deep lessons in Shirley’s questions and they are as relevant today as they were in 1984.

– Maisha Moses, Executive Director, The Young People’s Project

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