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Leaving Memphis to a Summer Sanctuary at TC

Published: 8/1/2003

It may be hard for today's college students to imagine a time when segregated southern states, in an attempt to maintain whites-only graduate institutions, paid for African-Americans graduates to travel north and attend Teachers College. Far from imaginary, these discriminatory policies brought talented people of color to Teachers College in the summers during the 1950s and 1960s - and for the sons and daughters who accompanied them, it was a welcome season of activity and freedom.

Among those enrolled in the summer graduate program were the mother and father of Dr. William Epps, now 58 years old and pastor of the Second Baptist Church in Los Angeles, an 800-member congregation with assets worth millions of dollars.

The Epps family, from Memphis, Tennessee, spent a total of 14 summers at TC. As his mother and father earned their degrees Epps and his siblings, part of a group of 50 to 75 African-American children of enrolled parents, learned to swim at TC's pool, played in the children's brass ensemble, and enjoyed the museums and attractions of New York City. During that time, his family lived in Bancroft Hall.

As the summers passed, Epps' father obtained two Masters degrees at TC before going on to Moorehouse for seminary studies, while his mother earned a Bachelors degree in education, and taught the fifth and sixth grade for 35 years.

"I think my experience at TC helped me immeasurably," said Epps. "Growing up in the South, TC gave me another reality. We looked forward to it for 14 straight years."

As an adult, Epps began seminary work in Boston, and then attended Union Theological Seminary on a scholarship. In 1968, he was involved in protests against the treatment of minorities at the Seminary, which ultimately resulted in changes to the curriculum. Once the scholarship at the Seminary expired, Epps returned to TC through a program (sponsored by the Lilly Foundation) to help minority applicants earn Masters degrees in educational administration. The program was designed to fill superintendent positions in New York City. He graduated with his Masters in Education in 1970.

Administrative Skills and Opportunities

The training he received in TC's educational administration program gave him the grounding he needed for his eventual role as a pastor: "If I could run a district, I could run a church," Epps said, adding that many of the same skills (staff management, property management) were required for both vocations. Currently, the Second Baptist Church offers a broad spectrum of social welfare and education programs for disadvantaged children and families in southern California. These include a day care program for about 150 children, a homeless shelter that houses up to 58 women and children, and 100 units of "transitional housing" that include 39 garden apartments, 52 high-rise apartments, and seven townhouses (to accommodate larger families).

Additionally, the church is planning to open a charter school - approval has already been granted by the state, but approval is pending from the Los Angeles Unified School District. The charter would continue the work of the day care/preschool, which serves primarily Hispanic children in the neighborhood of Second Baptist. Currently, the church has a teaching staff of 25 teachers and teaching assistants. The charter school would also offer family services, including health care.

Plans For a TC Scholarship

The "education connection" extends through Dr. Epps' family - his younger brother, Dr. Charles Thomas Epps, Jr., is the Superintendent of Schools in Jersey City, NJ, and Epps' two daughters are currently in graduate school, in the fields of chemistry and education.

Because TC played such an integral part of his family's life, Epps said, at his retirement he plans to establish a scholarship to assist minorities planning to attend TC. The scholarships would be in his parents' names.

In addition to the launch of the charter school, the Second Baptist Church is preparing to form its own management firm to oversee its properties, and to administer a new program that will offer subsidized housing for senior citizens and the handicapped.

Epps has been the pastor of Second Baptist for about 16 years. In addition to his responsibilities for the church, Epps is the Editor of National Baptist Voice, a publication of the National Baptist Convention.