In Memoriam: Rev. Brenda Howard Tapia
Brenda H. Tapia
(August 27, 1949 – February 4, 2020)
Brenda Howard Tapia passed away Tuesday night at the Levine-Dickson Hospice Center at Aldersgate in Charlotte after suffering a stroke two weeks ago.
Brenda grew up in Davidson, and was one of three children of James and Dovie Howard, parents who insisted she get a good education. James was a World War II veteran who worked on the college maintenance staff and then as an assistant in the chemistry department from 1949-1968.
She attended the Ada Jenkins school, which had been built as a result of the tireless work of her maternal grandfather Logan Houston. She then attended the Torrence-Lytle School in Huntersville. After ten years of education in all black schools, Brenda was one of the first black students transferred to North Mecklenburg High School as a part of desegregation.
Brenda fulfilled her parents’ dreams and earned a degree in psychology at Howard University. She worked in a variety of counseling positions for several years, but the more she talked to people, the more she came to believe that people’s issues were spiritual issues. In one interview, she talked about “dis-ease in the soul.” That led her toward ministry. She attended the Interdenominational Theological Center (ITC) in Atlanta and was ordained as a Presbyterian Minister of Word and Sacrament in 1988. ITC is one of ten theological institutions of the Presbyterian Church (USA), and is the only one that is historically African-American.
After finishing her theological education, she returned to Davidson in 1985 after an eighteen-year absence. While working as a supply preacher at a Mooresville church, she was hired part-time by Davidson College as a consultant for minority student affairs. After only a few months, she was hired by the college as full time assistant chaplain and minority student counselor. At about the same time, a college task force seeking ways to increase enrollment of minority students suggested that Davidson sponsor an education enrichment program for high school students.
Administrators turned to Tapia for guidance, and she accepted the challenge. The Love of Learning pilot class of rising high school juniors was formed in the summer of 1987. Tapia led the way in creating a program that emphasized a holistic approach toward strengthening body, mind, and spirit. She shunned the notion that any sort of quick-fix, short-term program would work. Instead, she fashioned Love of Learning to run for five years, from pre-ninth grade through high school graduation.
The program enrolled about 120 African American students for most of its existence (white and Hispanic students were enrolled in the latter few years.) Tapia liked the phrase “diamonds in the rough,” that had been suggested by a colleague to describe the students in the program. She felt it captured their current condition and future promise. “I’m trying to help people recognize the potential of students,” she said. “Be nice to them now so that you can have a front-row seat at their inauguration, or when they pick up their Academy Award!”
Love of Learning served as a year-round supplement to students’ regular school curriculum. There were gatherings every month throughout the school year, and a month-long summer residential session on Davidson’s campus. During the residencies, Love of Learning students were under the care and mentorship of college students, mostly from Davidson.
There was no cost to parents of Love of Learning students. Area school systems from which students were drawn, and some corporate and individual donors, supported the program, but Davidson College provided the bulk of its financial support.
The summer sessions, which students attended for three of their five Love of Learning years, occupied students from sunup to lights-out in a structured curriculum of academic tutoring, leadership training, spiritual development, physical education, and recreational activities. A staff of thirty teachers from local schools and colleges taught core courses in math, English, and science, as well as electives ranging from public speaking to dance. About twenty college students served as counselors and mentors, living with students in the residence halls and providing instruction and guidance.
Tapia most appreciated the freedom during those summer sessions to lead students to recognize their spiritual beliefs and needs. “My marching order from God was to create a nation within a nation,” she said. “At the beginning of the summer session each year, students symbolically took their masks off and put them in a box. We told them we were going to create a world different from what they had experienced. But ours was the real world. Out there wasn’t real. We did what God encouraged prophets and servants to do, to hold each other and give a lot of love. We tried to help students understand that’s how you change the world.”
She continued, “Love of Learning was a church in disguise—the real church, what churches are supposed to be. On the side we taught them a little reading, writing, and arithmetic. But anyone can pick that up. The real emphasis was on freeing the light within.”
She also believed that an all-black educational program on the Davidson campus was tremendously affirming and motivational for young people. “During the summer they got to experience something I got for free from first through tenth grade, when I was in segregated schools,” she said. “I’ve recreated the community I knew then, where black people had to care for each other because the larger world didn’t. There aren’t many students of color in top-level public-school classes now, and those few who are need support of others like them. So, being able to attend all-black classes and live in all-black residence halls during the summer…they ate that up!”
Tapia spent time helping Love of Learning students cope with systemic, societal racism. She felt the sting of racism when she was transferred from the all black Torrence-Lytle school to North Mecklenburg High School. She discovered colorism at Howard, referring to the challenges she faced because of her very dark complexion.
She often felt conflicted about working at Davidson, too, because she believed the college family showed too little concern for decisively addressing racial issues. Human value based on skin color was hypocritical at an institution that proclaimed Christian affiliation, she said. “Heaven isn’t segregated,” she said. “From a spiritual point of view – we are all equal.”
But the numbers of graduates in each class were always smaller than the number of students who began the program. Tapia grieved those who dropped out, or the few who were asked to leave, including a former student who is serving time in federal prison for drug offenses and bank robbery. The pressure of directing a program on a limited budget with limited staff, and doing so with such heartfelt emotion, was often stressful and physically draining.
Tapia once reflected, “I’ve paid a heavy price, but it’s my mission. If I wasn’t doing it here, I’d be doing it somewhere else. The Presbyterian Church considers me as its ordained minister, but that’s too narrow. I see the world as my congregation.”
Her dedication to young people and her larger congregation did not go unrecognized. She was tapped by Charlotte’s Afro-American Cultural Center as one of thirty “Women of a New Tribe II,” received an Education Award from the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Black Political Caucus, and was highlighted as a “Person of the Year” by The Charlotte Observer.
When she retired from the college, she eschewed all those accolades and honors. Pointing a finger toward heaven, she said “that’s the one I want, that’s the reward I’m waiting for.” You have that reward Brenda – way too soon, but it is your well-deserved reward.
Brenda is survived by her father James Howard of Davidson, NC; Sister Cassandra Howard of Cornelius; Sister Beverly Bailey of Lithonia, Ga; several aunts and uncles; and a host of cousins and friends. She was preceded in death by her mother Dovie Houston Howard.
Brenda’s words and actions touched a generation, who will – in turn – touch future generations. In her passing, many have focused on these words, her words:
“Beauty Am I. . .
Spirit Am I. . .
I Am The Infinite Within My Soul. . .
I Can Find No Beginning. . .
I Can Find No End. . .
All this I am!”
A Celebration of Brenda’s life will be held Friday, February 14 at Davidson College Presbyterian Church (DCPC) – located on the corner of Main Street and Concord Road.
- 10:30 Delta Sigma Theta Sorority (NOTE: this is an updated time)
- 11:00 Visitation
- 12:00 Funeral (the service will be livestreamed on the DCPC Facebook page for those family and friends who are unable to attend)
The service will be followed by reception in the Congregation House – located at 218 Concord Road.
For those of you missing our dear friend Brenda, we offer the following links:
A video of Brenda’s “Everything You Always Wanted to Know About Black People But Were Afraid to Ask” presentation at Myers Park United Methodist Church
An audio interview with Brenda from 1996.
NOTE: The basis of this was an article written about Brenda at the time of her retirement from Davidson College. Her family reviewed and approved the updated material.