Louise Epperson

Photograph of Louise Epperson from 1970. Mrs. Epperson, chair of the Committee Against Negro and Puerto Rican Removal, was instrumental in organizing opposition to the plans for a medical school in the Central Ward that would have displaced thousands of Black and Puerto Rican residents. -- Credit: Newark Public Library

Louise Epperson (1970)

Born in Waynesboro, Georgia in 1908, Louise Epperson came north to Newark in 1932. Coming of age during the Great Depression, Epperson helped her neighbors in Newark to find jobs in President Roosevelt’s Works Progress Administration. After holding a few different jobs as a domestic worker and medical receptionist, Epperson eventually took a job at Willowbrook State School in Staten Island, where she became the facility’s first African American occupational therapist.

Epperson became involved in city politics during Irvine Turner’s campaign to become Newark’s first African American city councilman in 1954. She later reflected “Irvine didn’t have too much power– he did whatever he could do. He never let us down, we were so proud of him.” Epperson also canvassed for Harry Hazelwood, who became the city’s first African American municipal court judge in 1958.

Although active in these campaigns in the 1950s, Epperson truly made her mark in the city during the mid-1960s when the City of Newark and State of New Jersey conspired to relocate the College of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey in Newark’s predominantly Black Central Ward. Upon hearing of the plans on the first day of 1967, Epperson recalled, “Immediately, I went to see the mayor…he said, ‘well, we are coming in whether you like it or not– we’ll just do an eminent domain.’ And I said, ‘then you’ll just have to run me over with the bulldozer, because I’m not moving.”

Epperson immediately began holding meetings in her home and public spaces with her neighbors to organize resistance to the plans for a medical school that would displace 20,000 residents of the Central Ward without their input or consent. Realizing the need to reach people where they were, Epperson brought her organizing into bars and clubs in the city, at times even getting into the go-go dancing cages to exhort patrons to action. Epperson’s grassroots organizing resulted in the formation of the Committee Against Negro and Puerto Rican Removal, with the assistance of Harry Wheeler, Honey Ward, and Russell Bingham.

Epperson and the Committee Against Negro and Puerto Rican Removal, along with the Newark Area Planning Association (NAPA) were instrumental in protesting the original plans for the medical school and negotiating with city and state officials to implement an alternate plan on fewer acres. The 1967 Rebellion helped to galvanize their struggle and compelled city and state officials to seek out a compromise and negotiation. Epperson remembered, with a big smile on her face, “I tried for weeks, months to get in touch with Dr. Cadmus, who was president of CMDNJ [the Medical School]…but, after the riots broke out, then, everybody wanted to talk to me.”

Junius Williams and Louise Epperson

Junius Williams and Louise Epperson

After the Medical School Agreements were negotiated, where she played an important role with Harry Wheeler and Junius Williams, she became the only female member of the United Brothers, the beginning of a Black united front spearheaded by Amiri Baraka. Louise Epperson was also active in the Black and Puerto Rican Political Convention, held in 1969 to nominate the “Community Choice” for city council and mayor in the 1970 election. The efforts of the Convention resulted in the election of Newark’s first Black mayor, Ken Gibson. She was also the first Black person appointed to the Newark Board of Health and used her position to advocate for patients and the healthcare needs of her community. After initially turning down offers, she took a job at the Medical School, where she created an important patient relations program.

Community activist and scholar Robert Curvin later wrote of Louise Epperson, “Epperson was not slick or learned; she was blunt and passionate and carried herself in a way that made people listen to her and respect her. Community leaders admired her.”

Reflecting years later on her struggles during Newark’s civil rights era, Epperson recalled “we had nobody in City Hall…We only had good mother-wits, and we just used that mother wit. It made me think about Fannie Lou Hamer, and all the other soldiers that fought during the struggle for black folks to try to make it. We had to struggle, we had to persevere, no matter what happened.”

References:

Katie Singer, “Over My Dead Body!” Newest Americans, Issue 02, Winter 2016.

Junius Williams, Unfinished Agenda: Urban Politics in the Era of Black Power

Robert Curvin, Inside Newark: Decline, Rebellion, and the Search for Transformation

Who’s Coming In, Who’s Going Out?

World War II kicked off the second Great Migration, as African Americans from the South sought better living conditions in Newark and other cities. Between 1940 and 1950, the African American population of Newark increased from 45,760 to 74,965—growing from 10.7% to 17.2% of the city’s total population. In many ways, this population influx marked a tipping point for recognition.

For most of Newark, the depression ended. “Help wanted “ signs went up. But African Americans could not always find a job. The New Jersey Afro-American wrote in 1941 that while contracts for nearly a billion and a half dollars in government defense orders have been placed with firms in New Jersey, the Urban League finds that these firms have steadfastly refused to hire colored workers.”

 

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“Help wanted “ signs went up. But African Americans could not always find a job.
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But some African Americans did find employment. Jobs for blacks in the Newark defense workforce improved from 4% in 1942, to 8.8% in 1943. With the overall economy booming, Newark’s downtown stores began hiring some African Americans as elevator operators and janitors. Large restaurants hired blacks as chefs, cooks and waiters—they could work, but not sit down to eat. The war years helped enhance the prospects of some, while still denying prosperity for the many.

Whites Begin to Leave

Around 1947, the white middle class started deserting Newark for the suburbs, along with the businesses that sustained them. The post World-War II boom was good for businesses for a while, but factories, schools, and streets had been neglected during the war. Overcrowding was a problem, especially in the ghettos. These conditions made the suburbs very attractive as alternatives to Newark.

The G.I. Bill of Rights and FHA loans made it easier for whites to buy a house, and brand new highways built by the federal government with taxpayers’ dollars made it easier to drive those new automobiles to the suburbs, in Essex County and further west. These same mortgages were unavailable to most African Americans; and most suburbs were off limits.

 

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These same mortgages were unavailable to most African Americans; and most suburbs were off limits.
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But Newark’s heterogeneous ethnic character remained intact in the early and mid-1950s. Newark was described as follows by writer Joseph Conforti:

The Germans had given way to the Irish who in 1950 shared political power with an Italian and a Jew. The ethnic division of the city could also be observed less directly. Many occupations were ethnically identifiable: the police and fire departments were overwhelmingly Irish; the construction trades were Italian; the merchants were largely Jewish, the small luncheonettes were Greek, the large businesses were owned and operated by WASPs, skilled craftsmen were likely to be German, and the factory operatives were Irish, Polish and Italian. Even the city’s taxicabs had ethnic identifications…yellow cabs were operated by the Irish, 20th Century cabs by Jews, Brown and White cabs by Italians, and Green cabs by blacks.

Newark’s Changing Demographics

Ghettoization continued in Newark. By 1940, the Third Ward (today’s Central Ward) alone contained more than 16,000 black residents. By 1944 nearly one third of the apartments and housing in the black areas were below the standards of minimum decency. Some houses still had outside bathrooms.

The slums were among the worst in the nation. The situation was particularly grim for African Americans, clustered on “the hill” just west of the Essex County Court House. Public Housing did not help a lot. There were 7 low-income projects finished before the war, but by 1946, there were 2,110 white families and only 623 black families in the buildings. Four of the projects housed no black people. The best low-rise public housing, such as Bradley Court, was reserved for whites; while the poorest units, such as F.D.R. Homes, were reserved for blacks. Ultimately, the majority of African Americans were steered into the growing number of high rise public housing which just happened to be built in the center city where black people had been confined beginning at the turn of the 20th century.

 

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Four of the projects housed no black people.
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The 1950 Census showed the trend in population increases for blacks, and decrease by whites. Newark’s total population rose only slightly from 429,760 in 1940 to 438,776 in 1950. Black residents had increased from 45,760 to 74,965—more than a 60% increase. When newspapers took a look at the faces of misery, increasingly they were black.

Even though the city began hemorrhaging jobs (250 manufacturers left between 1950-60; 1,300 manufactures left during the 1960s), the more dramatic change in the city’s socioeconomic structure was the rapidly changing composition of the city’s population.

African Americans were rapidly become politically and economically obsolete in a city where they would soon be in the majority. Segregation and discrimination by race and class defined Newark’s offering to the city’s newest immigrants.

Listen to the people speak about their experiences as newcomers to Newark below…

Louise Epperson reflects upon her experiences during the Medical School Fight in Newark. — Credit: Henry Hampton Collection, Washington University Libraries

Statement at Blight Hearing

Statement at Blight Hearing

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Transcript of Louise Epperson’s statement to the Central Planning Board on June 13, 1967 during the Medical School “blight hearings.” — Credit: Newark Public Library

Flyer from Medical School Fight

Flyer from Medical School Fight

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Flyer distributed to encourage community members to protest the seizure of land for the construction of a medical school in the Central Ward. — Credit: Junius Williams Collection

Letter from Committee Against Negro and Puerto Rican Removal

Letter from Committee Against Negro and Puerto Rican Removal

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Letter from the Committee Against Negro and Puerto Rican Removal to Robert C. Weaver demanding that all urban renewal projects in Newark be stopped. — Credit: Junius Williams Collection

Explore The Archives

African American Repairman

African American Repairman

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Photograph from the PSEG archives of an African American repairman at work. — Credit: PSEG

22 Clayton Street Stove

22 Clayton Street Stove

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A look inside the apartment of an African American family at 22 Clayton Street in Newark. — Credit: WPA Photographs, NJ State Archives

22 Clayton Street Bathroom

22 Clayton Street Bathroom

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A look inside the apartment of an African American family at 22 Clayton Street in Newark. — Credit: WPA Photographs, NJ State Archives

African American Stoker

African American Stoker

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Photograph from the PSEG archives of an African American stoker at work. — Credit: PSEG