Epps, Archie C. III 1937–2003
Archie C. Epps III 1937–2003
“It is hard to imagine Harvard Yard without Archie Epps walking it,” Harvard University faculty dean William C. Kirby said in a eulogy given after Epps’s death and quoted in the Boston Globe. With his three-piece suit and silk bow tie, Epps was a Harvard institution, and one who relished his role as such. One of Harvard’s first African-American administrators, Epps served as dean of students at the school from 1971 to 1999. His tenure there coincided with turbulent years in the university’s history, and over the course of his career he faced both professional and personal attacks from groups at various points along the political spectrum. He always responded with characteristic groundedness and good humor.
A native of Lake Charles, Louisiana, Archie Epps III was born on May 19, 1937. His father owned a dry cleaning business and had also been a football player of local fame. Epps and his twin brother Martin Luther Epps attended Catholic schools, and Epps went on to study at Alabama’s Talladega College. A philosophy and psychology major, Epps did so well at Talladega that teachers urged him to continue his education at Harvard or Yale, home to some of the toughest graduate programs in the country. He graduated from Talladega in 1958.
Epps remembered not being able to find either Harvard or Yale on a map at the time, but he applied and was accepted to Harvard’s divinity school. There were only 30 black students at the entire university. “I was frightened out of my mind when I got to Harvard, but I made friends easily,” Epps told the Boston Globe. He earned a second bachelor’s degree from the divinity school and stayed on to study for a certificate in educational management at the Harvard Business School. Completing that program in 1961, Epps was hired as a teaching assistant at Harvard’s Center for Middle Eastern Studies and as assistant conductor of the Harvard Glee Club.
With his tweedy look and his love of Harvard traditions like the Glee Club, Epps fit in with the rituals of Ivy League life from the start. “To me it’s interesting that the first black Harvard administrator was Old Harvard in style, from the teas to the Glee Club,” historian Martin Keller told the Globe. “At Harvard, that can be
At a Glance…
Born on May 19, 1937 in Lake Charles, LA; died on August 21, 2003, in Boston, MA; married Valerie; children: josiah and Caleb. Education: Talladega College, Talladega, AL, AB, 1958; Harvard University School of Divinity, BA; Harvard Business School, certificate in educational management, 1961. Religion: Christ Church.
Career: Harvard University, Center for Middle Eastern Studies, teaching assistant, early 1960s; music tutor, early 1960$; Harvard Glee Club, assistant conductor, early 1960s; Harvard College, assistant dean, 1964-71; Harvard College, dean of students, 1971-98; Harvard College, ombudsman, mediator, senior class adviser, and freshman seminar instructor, 1998-2003.
very useful.” Yet Epps was also an African-American pathbreaker. Teaching a seminar on black nationalism, he invited Nation of Islam leader Malcolm X to speak at Harvard—a surprising move in the days before black student activism. He became an advisor to Harvard’s new Association of African and Afro-American Students, and in 1963 he led a student group to the March on Washington. The following year, after being turned down for another administrative job, Epps was hired as Harvard’s assistant dean. In 1967 Epps edited a book, The Speeches of Malcolm X at Harvard.
As student unrest flared at Harvard in the late 1960s, Epps often found himself cast in the role of peacemaker. Sympathetic both to the positions of militant black students and to the position of his fellow administrators, Epps was widely regarded as neutral and fair. Sometimes, however, his diplomatic skills were overwhelmed; a 1969 photograph showed student protestors carrying Epps out of the University Hall building at Harvard. After Epps was named dean of students at Harvard College (the university’s undergraduate unit) in 1971, he remained the man in the middle on racial issues.
Militant African-American students fumed at the slow pace of change at Harvard under Epps’s leadership, especially after Epps began to argue in the 1970s that Harvard was admitting too many unqualified black students. “Harvard was promising these students an experience it could not deliver,” Epps told the Globe. “And it had certain expectations of these students that they could not deliver, either.” Epps resisted calls for the establishment of a Third World center at Harvard and argued against black separatism generally, calling himself (according to the Globe) “an old-fashioned integrationist.” In response to accusations that he was an archconservative, Epps characterized himself as a conservative Democrat politically.
Yet Epps achieved major changes at Harvard. Even black students who criticized him at protest meetings sometimes sought his personal help, and Epps was always willing to oblige. Several generations of Harvard undergraduates found Epps a congenial and caring presence, always available and involved in student affairs. Many students stranded on campus at holidays received dinner invitations to the Epps home. He oversaw Harvard’s merger with all-female Radcliffe College in 1977 and worked to smooth the integration of women into Harvard life.
And, without grand gestures, Epps worked to root out hidden racism at Harvard. “If you talk to a faculty member who’s had too much to drink and said something he shouldn’t have, you can see him the next day and ask, ‘Do you know what you said to me last night? We should talk about it.’ I’ve turned many people around simply by my length of service here,” he told the Globe.
By 1980, Epps had the ear of Harvard president Derek Bok and other top administrators. He authored a report depicting black students at Harvard as isolated from the mainstream of college life, and the administration responded with a new commitment to a diverse student body. Epps had the chance to pursue other interests, including an economics conference series sponsored by the government of Luxembourg. He also worked to withdraw university recognition from Harvard’s fraternity-like and increasingly liquor-soaked “final houses.” But the racial divide was never far from the sphere of his responsibilities; in the late 1980s he was in the thick of the controversy over whether Harvard should divest itself of stock holdings in companies that did business with South Africa’s apartheid regime, and in 1992 he came under attack for questioning the Black Student Union’s speech invitation to Leonard Jeffries, a New York professor who raised hackles by pointing to Jewish involvement in the slave trade.
One of Epps’s major accomplishments was the publication of a Harvard handbook on race relations that year. Another was the establishment of the Harvard Mediation Service, which frequently had a hand in resolving racial disputes. And the number of undergraduate student organizations at Harvard tripled under his watch. Beyond these concrete measures, Epps often worked as a behind-the-scenes figure. Although he had no direct control over academic matters, he was credited with helping to lay the institutional groundwork for the rise to prominence of Harvard’s African-American Studies department, widely regarded as the nation’s best in the 1990s.
Epps suffered from health problems in the 1990s, and in 1995 he underwent both a coronary double-bypass operation and a kidney transplant. The new kidney was donated by Epps’s wife Valerie, a law professor and mother of Epps’s two sons (both of whom went to Harvard). When Epps announced his retirement in 1999, he told the Globe it was to “protect my bride’s investment in me.” The dry sense of humor was typical of his personality. After retiring, Epps taught a seminar on race and diversity for freshmen and took on a variety of administrative tasks.
After complications of heart surgery, Epps died in Boston on August 21, 2003. Henry Rosovsky, dean of Harvard’s arts and sciences faculty, told the Globe that Epps “was a very elegant man in a difficult position. He was elegant in style in clothes. The difficulty was that he was the only black senior Harvard administrator for a long period of time, and felt pressure from all sides—from the administration, from students, from everybody. He carried all of this off in very good spirits. He did a lot for the institution.”
Boston Globe, April 6, 1999, p. D1; August 23, 2003.
Boston Herald, August 23, 2003, p. 22.
Harvard Independent, September 18, 2003.
New York Times, August 23, 2003, p. B16.
“Archie Epps III,” The History Makers, www.thehis-torymakers.com (May 2, 2004).
—James M. Manheim
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