Beloved Mentor’s Legacy Honored Through New Name for Freedom Schools
The Reverend Brenda Tapia knew exactly who she was. She was a child of God. She was an educator. She was a candid and unapologetic mentor.
She was also a beloved mother figure who, through the Davidson College Love of Learning program, shaped young people’s understanding of themselves and showed them how they could become agents of change. She taught her students—Black teens who were selected through an application process to come to Davidson College during the summer—about who they were and whose they were.
“Finally, I wasn’t alone,” said Thea Princewill ’93 (nee Nethea Rhinehardt), a member of the Love of Learning pilot class in the summer of 1987. “There were very few Black students in accelerated classes at my school. I felt like a misfit, like I didn’t belong. Love of Learning—Brenda—created a family. She built us up academically, but she also built us up emotionally and psychologically. She gave me the tools to be authentic as a Black person in a largely white-centric world. She changed my life.”
Today, Davidson College, in partnership with the Brenda H. Tapia Family Foundation, and in memory of a lifelong educator and leader, announces the naming of The Brenda Tapia CDF (Children’s Defense Fund) Freedom Schools®, housed at the Ada Jenkins Center.
“The work of the Brenda H. Tapia Foundation carries on so many parts of Brenda’s legacy, just as this new partnership does,” said Boris (Bo) Henderson ’01, the foundation’s board chair and a former Love of Learning counselor-mentor. “She spent her whole life fighting for justice, equality and education and working to find ‘diamonds in the rough,’ as she would say, who had the potential to change the world. The connection to Freedom Schools speaks to her commitment to education, and Davidson College is where she perfected and grew her ministry. Inspired by her Love of Learning work, we also intend to look for opportunities to ‘add a little Brenda’ to the existing program.”
An anonymous donor has made a generous gift to create an enrichment fund in support of The Brenda Tapia CDF Freedom Schools®. Former students, alums, loved ones and all members of the Davidson community are encouraged to add their support by making a gift or a pledge.
Brenda embodied compassion, love of learning and just plain love. Through transforming attitudes, transforming lives and bringing people together, she was a unique person whose reach and love transcended boundaries, cultures, race and religion. She gave words and emotions meaning that changed lives and engendered purpose in children and adults from all backgrounds. We hope this commitment will perpetuate her gifts and continue her legacy in a small way.
Rooted in the Mississippi Freedom Summer Project of 1964, the CDF Freedom Schools program is a literacy and cultural enrichment program designed to serve children and youth in grades K–12 in communities where quality academic enrichment programming is limited, too expensive or nonexistent.
The six-week summer program in Davidson was started in 2005 by the college. The program enrolls 50 youth each year, and six Davidson students support the program as servant leader interns. Participant outcomes show the program consistently supports learning gains, compared to the all-too-common learning loss that can occur during the summer.
“Rev. Brenda Tapia's unwavering dedication to education, justice and love lives on through The Brenda Tapia CDF Freedom Schools®, a partnership in which Davidson College gratefully and proudly joins,” said President Doug Hicks ’90. “Today, we honor and extend her legacy of transforming lives and fostering a lifelong love of learning.”
Learning Through Love
Daniel Heath is an associate chaplain for Davidson College. He also was a member of the Theta Class of Love of Learning at 14 years old, part of the reason he viewed his 2022 appointment at the college as a homecoming.
“Each of our classes was named, and then after we graduated from the program, we were given an African name,” he said. “Naming was a big part of the program because it was about community and belonging. We took pride in it. Brenda’s name going on this Freedom Schools program has greater meaning because of the value she placed on naming.”
Each morning, Tapia would lead program participants through a time of devotion, giving honor to God and ancestors—Malcolm X and Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks—who were Black leaders and thinkers and philosophers. She reminded students that they stood on the shoulders of others.
Heath remembers Tapia sharing her ultimate goal: for Black students to earn terminal degrees, something he will achieve next year, adding to the advanced degrees he currently holds in theology, law and music education.
“Maximizing students’ potential—that’s what she was all about,” he said. “Thanks to the program, I was able to see myself in college before I even applied to college, walking through Chambers Building, staying in Richardson Hall. What a gift.”
Princewill came to the program unsure of herself and her place in the world. She felt Blackness was something to overcome, something to feel shame about. Tapia told her that’s not how it works, giving her the confidence to navigate whatever’s thrown her way.
“Brenda was fearless. She was a Black, dark-skinned, commanding woman, and she was like, ‘I got this,’ and would make magic anyway,” Princewill said. “Yes, we did SAT prep, math clinics and all the academic pieces; more than that, she was insistent that we love ourselves, love to learn and keep our curiosity open for the rest of our lives.”
Full Circle for Family
God was at the center of Tapia’s life. Her younger sister, Beverly Bailey, remembers hearing about Tapia’s early years before Bailey was born. Tapia and her parents moved in with her grandparents for a time, before they moved into the house next door.
“Brenda told me how our grandfather, Logan E. Houston, would wake up each day, and before he said a word to anybody, he would walk from the bedroom to the dining room and get down to kneel and pray,” Bailey said. “Our family is rooted in having a relationship with God.”
Education mattered, too. Houston never finished elementary school, so during meals, as his children went through school, he required them to share everything they learned. This commitment to learning eventually led him to become part of the start-up efforts to create the Ada Jenkins Center—the very center that now houses a program bearing his granddaughter’s name.
The family connections don’t end there. Ruby Houston, Tapia’s cousin and long-time family and community engagement leader for Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, was at the table when the idea to bring Freedom Schools to Davidson was first born. She was a champion for the program because she understood the need as well as the benefits of supplemental educational opportunities.
“Before I knew it, we were serving 100 children,” she said. “Children in our community were missing out on things children in Charlotte had access to. Not everyone can join the YMCA. Not everyone can participate in recreational programs. There’s a dollar sign attached to those things. But even more than access, it’s the education piece. Freedom Schools gives these children opportunities to learn, go on field trips, get a healthy breakfast and lunch.”
One of Houston’s cousins participated in Freedom Schools, and there was an immediate impact on her grades and her curiosity.
“Her mother would call me every semester to tell me she was making As and Bs,” she said. “The proof is in the pudding. I wish we could serve even more kids.”
For Tapia’s family, seeing her name attached to the program is well-deserved and a fitting way to remember her.
“It was always in her head and in her heart to help people.” Houston said. “She earned this because of her efforts to support young people academically. She did it through Love of Learning, and we continue it through Freedom Schools.”
“There was nobody else like her,” Bailey said. “She would neglect herself in order to help someone else. She had a heart of gold.”
A Forever Legacy
Henderson remembers when he first “met” Brenda Tapia. She was on the radio during his senior year of high school, and the shy kid was immediately drawn to her voice and presence over the air waves.
“I was planning to come to Davidson for college, but I wasn’t even on campus yet when I started calling her,” said the Charlotte native. “Once I arrived on campus, I’d show up at her office every day after football camp. I was relentless. Eventually, she figured she should just give in and make me her second family.”
Henderson became a counselor-mentor for the Love of Learning program, and their relationship continued to grow. From that moment until her final days, and even today, Tapia has been hard at work in Henderson’s life. What quickly became a mother-son relationship has guided him through every aspect of family life, work life and religious life. She even selected Henderson as her power of attorney and sent him an email to let him know of her decision. He admits he isn’t always the most organized person, and he overlooked the important message in his inbox.
“I was visiting Brenda during her final days, and a doctor came into the room and asked me who the power of attorney was,” Henderson recalled. “I started searching through my email and found a message from two years before that I had no memory of ever getting. In it, she told me she considered me her son and she was giving me the papers to prove it.”
After he found the email, Henderson and a few friends went out to dinner and talked about the responsibility they had to carry on Brenda’s legacy. That’s the day they decided to create the foundation, and started talking about the mission and vision that would best carry on her work and the things she cared about most.
Henderson starts each day reading from the same books Tapia read from, including Acts of Faith by Iyanla Vanzant. In May, he, like Heath, will graduate from seminary as a doctor of ministry, a program he felt led to enter after Tapia’s death.
“Brenda always said Bo reminded her of our grandfather,” Bailey said. “He has a humanitarian spirit, and he loves to serve the community.”
Tapia’s influence stays with all her “children,” which is how she viewed every student and counselor-mentor who crossed her path. She taught lessons that lasted a lifetime.
“Brenda was ahead of the curve,” Princewill said. “She was a visionary. She taught us that Blackness was not something to overcome. That we didn’t have to play small or deny our identity in order to exist and thrive and be ourselves. There was an awakening after George Floyd’s murder in 2020, and people started talking about parts of history that had been hidden and not taught in schools—Juneteenth, Black Wall Street. Brenda taught us about all those things back in the 1980s. I thought, ‘ok, everyone’s finally catching up.’”
Jowette Bobray, assistant director in the Davidson College Center for Civic Engagement, is the program director of Freedom Schools in Davidson.
“The Brenda H. Tapia CDF Freedom Schools represents Tapia’s ethos, her reason for being,” said Bobray. “She wanted children to love to learn and to exist in the world confident in who they were, who they could become and what they brought to those around them.”
“Each one, teach one,” Princewill said. “That was Brenda’s thing. She was a treasure. She was my family.”