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  • The Epps FactorHow Brains Trumped Bigotry
  • John H. Britton (bio)

A teenaged Anna Cherrie in mid-20th century America, no less than her ancestors in bondage a century earlier, was experiencing the raw pain that gave rise to the mournful lyrics of a traditional Negro spiritual that reduces even atheists to tears: I been 'buked and I been scorned.

With Langston Hughes,1 Anna Cherrie would come to know what happens to a dream deferred. In her young life, she hoped for nothing more than an opportunity to follow her beloved father into the practice of medicine. Would her dream, as Hughes wondered, "sag like a heavy load" under America's twin towers of racism and chauvinism? Or would it explode?

In the New Orleans of her youth, Anna Cherrie sprinted through Catholic schools, graduating with honors from Xavier University Preparatory High School at age 16. She enrolled in her father's alma mater, Howard University, to earn a Bachelor of Science degree in zoology. Immediately following her baccalaureate career, she experienced the drama that deferred or, more accurately, redirected her dream.

Majority medical schools of that day rarely enrolled people of color and, notwithstanding spectacular academic bona fides and a superior performance on qualifying exams, Anna Cherrie, a college graduate at age 19, was treated dismissively when she sought admission to the two major African American medical schools.


Viewed from the 21st century, the reasons given by Howard University's medical school administrators look more like convenient excuses:

  • • Because, they answered, as a female (and something of a Southern belle at that) she probably was less serious about the practice of medicine than a man would be.

  • • Because, they speculated, she was too young to master the medical school curriculum, never mind that standard predictors of success favored her.

  • • Because, if admitted, they said, she would take a seat away from a male applicant who, as a consequence, might find himself exposed to the military draft in wartime.

She turned to Meharry Medical College, a final hope, where authorities were dazzled by her remarkable qualifications. In the end, though, the president of the institution ruled that her youth was disquieting and disqualifying; that she needed more [End Page 413] seasoning to prepare herself for the rigors of Meharry's School of Medicine sometime in the future.

Family friends, professionals who had bonded with her father, these school officials rocked her middle-class innocence and rattled her faith in meritocracy. Where was her refuge, she wondered? Her beloved father's associates, medical doctors sworn to do no harm, were stunting her ambition, abridging her right to the pursuit of happiness, and gratuitously deferring her dream. Would it explode?

The confusion made her head hurt. Her heart raced to keep pace with her thoughts. Her mind struggled to find solace. Her soul sought sanctuary, or at least momentary deliverance from made-in-America race and gender madness.

But, how best to respond? More accurately, young Anna Cherrie asked herself this question (long before football Hall of Famer Jim Brown used it to shock an addled and then-addicted comic genius, Richard Pryor, to face his dependence): What'cha gon' do?

Failure was never an option. Her pride remained intact. Anna Cherrie, after all, was of the southern black gentry, the apple of the eyes of a loving mother, Anna, and a doting father, Ernest Cherrie, MD; eventually to become the wife of the respected New Orleans physician, Joseph M. Epps, Sr., MD.

Her response was simple, yet profound:

  • Simple because in time she set her sights on a PhD degree in science rather than the MD she had originally envisioned. Physicians, she rationalized, are mere technocrats; the Ph.D. offers flexibility and room for greater creativity.

  • Profound because her subsequent accomplishments offer powerful vindication. The institutions that denied her opportunity, plus others in the fraternity of academic medicine, now freely acknowledge, in ways great and small, that Anna Cherrie Epps, PhD ranks among the very best medical educators in America.

What of her dream? It was deferred. But it did not explode!

No class- or race-based -isms could extinguish the after-burners that powered Anna Cherrie...


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pp. 413-417
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