On April 9, 1969, a dozen Harvard deans were slated to meet in University Hall to discuss the growing student dissent around the school’s stance on the Vietnam War. As they had planned for weeks, a group of 350 students led by the Progressive Labor Party and the Student Workers’ Alliance raided the hall, demanding that the deans leave the building, as a form of protest. While most of the administrators left, Archie C. Epps III, then Associate Dean of Harvard College, stayed, barring himself within his office, leaving only when protestors forcibly carried him out.
As Dean of Students and one of few Black senior administrators in Harvard’s history, Epps occupied a unique position within campus politics. As his refusal to give into the students’ demands illustrates, he had strong convictions on what was just. Throughout his time at Harvard in the ’60s and ’70s, he was heavily involved in local and national activism, helping organize the March on Washington and inviting Malcolm X for debates on campus.
Not long after the student riot, he rose through the ranks at Harvard, becoming Dean of Students in 1971. At age 32, he was one of the youngest appointments in the school’s history — and his term as dean one of the most eventful.
Epps was born in 1937, in Lake Charles, Louisiana, as one of three brothers. His parents were both schoolteachers and business owners — their dry-cleaning service, Epps Cleaners, was one of the first Black businesses in the city. They were active members of their community, helping to bring voting machines to their neighborhood and fighting for library privileges for African Americans in the town. So devoted were his parents to activism that a new library for the Black community was eventually built and named in their honor: the Epps Memorial Library.
As a young man, Epps attended Talladega College, majoring in psychology and religion. After he graduated third in his class, a professor pointed him towards Harvard to continue his education. With his mother’s blessing, and help from a scholarship provided by the American Board of Home Missions Congregationalists, Epps attended Harvard Divinity School from 1958 to 1961. From there, he went on to become a teaching assistant for sociology courses and a tutor at Leverett House.
In 1961, Epps met Malcolm X at a lunch in Boston, and the two quickly got to talking about race relations. Epps later recalled that while he was pouring cream into his coffee, Malcolm X quipped, “You don’t want to mix those two things.” Then a stalwart separatist, Malcom X argued it was impossible for African Americans to “move beyond” a history of exploitation and discrimination.. Epps believed strongly in the possibility of racial integration but respected Malcolm X as a peer. He later invited Malcolm to debate twice at Harvard, once with himself as Malcolm’s opponent.
During his time as assistant dean, Epps served as the Boston area coordinator for the March on Washington, traveling around basements and churches to promote awareness about the protest. Afterwards, in the summer of 1964, Epps lobbied and worked as a part of the Freedom Democratic Party to increase Black voter turnout in places rife with voter intimidation and discrimination.
As Dean of Students, Epps fought against separation from both sides. From refusing to support the creation of a cultural center for solely African American students to pushing back against the desire for separated dorms, Epps sought to create a Harvard open to everyone.
In his consistent pushback against separation, in his refusal to leave University Hall unless forcibly carried out, and even in his dedication to wearing a three-piece suit, Epps’s character stands out as consistent and unyielding. “He would sometimes take a long time to come down on something like that, but when he decided … he was always clear and firm,” Harry R. Lewis ’68, Epps’s colleague who served as Dean of the College, told the Crimson in 2011.
In an interview held in 2003, a few months before his death, Epps said he would want to be remembered for three things. First, for promoting an explosive growth in student activities. Next, for establishing the Harvard Foundation for Intercultural and Race Relations and releasing Harvard’s first handbook on race relations. And lastly, for working to make Harvard a more “cosmopolitan” and “universal” space.
He abided by a simple principle: “Once you climb the ladder yourself, you have to look back and see who you can help come up.”
— Magazine writer William S. Hahn can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.