ORANGE, NJ – Dr. Linda Caldwell Epps looked out at the 100 residents of the Housing Authority of the City of Orange (HACO) and asked, “How many of your parents were raised in New Jersey?” Three hands went up. “How many were born in the South?” The majority of hands shot up.
So began Dr. Epps’s tales of African American women migrating to the Newark area. Her presentation, Open the Door – I’ll Get It Myself: Migration Stories of New Jersey’s African American Women, celebrated Women’s History Month, March 28, at the HACO headquarters in Orange.
She kept her audience captivated with stories of ordinary women who ventured north to make a better life for their families and themselves. “They scrubbed floors, worked as waitresses, took care of children, and toiled in sweat shops.”
Although the Ku Klux Klan was active in New Jersey and segregation was entrenched, Newark at that time offered greater job opportunities and the promise of a more prosperous life. The city was in its heyday when waves of African American families arrived in the 1940’s. For many, their first stop was the statue of Abraham Lincoln in front of the Hall of Records to have their picture taken sitting in its lap. Explained Dr. Epps, “You had to send that picture back home, so people would know you made it here.” Second, they wanted to ride the escalator in Bamberger’s Department Store. “If you come from a small town where nothing is more than two stories high, you can’t imagine moving stairs.”
For others, the road north was more perilous. One family was almost prevented from leaving by the white owners of the farm where they sharecropped. The mother and children had to sneak out of the county to travel up north to meet their father. “They told the mother to tell her husband to come back where he belonged,” said Dr. Epps. “You went no place from generation to generation.”
As part of the celebration, the Essex County Freeholders presented Dr. Epps with a resolution that cited in part Dr. Epps’s “continued commitment to education, family, and this community.”
“It was an honor to have a historian of Dr. Epps’s stature give her address in Orange,” said Brendan Gill, president-at-large of the Essex County Freeholder Board. “Dr. Epps’s extensive research illuminated the contributions of so many regular African American women who helped build our communities. We are indebted to her for shining a light and giving these women the recognition they deserve.”
In addition, with the help of Mayor Dwayne Warren and Councilmember-at-large Adrienne Wooten, the municipal council declared March 28 Dr. Linda Caldwell Epps Day in the City of Orange. Each year, the city will recognize Dr. Epps for her dedication to preserving history in New Jersey and for her lifetime achievements working with educational and cultural institutions.
That was a sentiment shared by the audience. Said resident Linda Jones-Bell, “Thank you for standing and representing us as a people.”
Added Dr. Walter McNeil, HACO’s executive director, “Dr. Epps’s presentation was an enlightening experience for all who gathered to listen. It was captivating to learn of the experiences and accomplishments of the women who traveled here from the South. It gave us another reason to be proud of who we are and where we live.”
Dr. Linda Caldwell Epps is the former president and chief executive officer of the New Jersey Historical Society. In addition to her work with the New Jersey Historical Society, Dr. Epps has built a prestigious career that includes serving as the vice president of the Foundation for New Jersey Public Broadcasting and vice president of institutional relations at New Jersey Television and Radio. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in American and African American studies from Rutgers University, a Master of Arts in American studies from Seton Hall University, and a Ph.D. in humanities from Drew University.
About the Orange Housing Authority
The Orange Housing Authority works to transform the City of Orange by providing safe, livable and affordable housing that promotes the development of communities. At the Orange Housing Authority, participants are not statistics, they are neighbors. The agency knows the community and tailors programs to better serve the needs of its residents. Whether it is a search for housing, assistance with foreclosure or neighborhood development, the Orange Housing Authority stands ready to offer its services to all residents.