Portrait of Slain Youth Shows Boy Caught Between Worlds of Rich, Poor
Edmund Perry lived in two worlds: the elite world of Phillips Exeter Academy, with its ivy-encrusted walls, and the downtrodden world of Harlem, with its drugs and crime and hopelessness.
The ghetto world claimed his life. Ten days after he was graduated from the exclusive New Hampshire prep school, on June 12, the 17-year-old Perry crumpled onto a Harlem street, a police officer’s bullet in his abdomen.
Police allege that Perry and another youth tried to rob the officer. That’s impossible, claim the people who knew Perry. He wasn’t a mugger, they say, he was a scholar, he was a success, he was their great hope.
‘Thirst for Knowledge’
“He was our shining star. Nobody in our family ever did what he did,” said Monica Perry, a cousin. “He was going to change things for us.”
“He had a thirst for knowledge,” said his mother, Veronica Perry. “He used to tell me, ‘Mom, I’m going to help my people rise.’ ”
A portrait of Perry, drawn from interviews with his friends, teachers and family, depicts a complicated youth who left Harlem for the hills of New Hampshire--but never fully adjusted, never really left Harlem.
“Goodby, Exeter,” Perry said in a class note in his yearbook. “You taught and showed me many things. . . . God bless you for that. Some things I saw I did not like, and some things I learned I’d rather not know. Nevertheless, it had to be done because I could never learn not to learn.
“It’s a pity we part on a less than friendly basis, but we do. . . . Work to adjust yourself to a changing world, as will I.”
Once, 114th Street between Seventh and Eighth avenues was a center of drug activity. The city took over the buildings in 1977, and a strong tenants association has reduced the crime and the drug traffic.
Last August, when the New York Times profiled the block, Edmund Perry was among those interviewed. “It’s Harlem. It’s not the worst place to grow up and it’s not the best place,” he said. “My mother put ideas into my head that there was something else.”
Veronica Perry, an assistant teacher in a program for young children, was elected to Community School Board 3 in 1983. The father, Jonah, is a sexton at Memorial Baptist Church. Acquaintances say he did not live with the family.
As a child, Edmund scored five years ahead of his grade on reading tests. He was ambitious. He said he “wanted to buy a Porsche . . . and soon he would have enough money to buy me anything I wanted, because he was smart,” recalled his 14-year-old sister, Nicol.
The three Perry children pursued their goals through the program for talented youth at Wadleigh Junior High School, on the end of their block. For 21 years, educator Edouard E. Plummer has helped hundreds of children gain entrance to prep schools and colleges, offering extra night and summer courses.
Jonah Perry Jr., 19, earned a spot at Westminster School in Simsbury, Conn., and is now a sophomore at Cornell University. Edmund followed with a scholarship to Phillips Exeter, from which he was graduated June 2. Nicol is in Plummer’s program now.
At his interview for admission to Exeter, Perry told John Herney, director of admissions, that he wanted to become a doctor and return to Harlem “to help make it better,” Herney recalled.
“He was an independent kid who had confidence,” Herney said in a telephone interview. “There was never any doubt in my mind about Eddie Perry. He was certainly going to make it.”
Perry maintained a “B” average at Exeter. He joined the Afro-Exonian Society--a group primarily of black and Latino pupils that provides peer support and lobbies for more minority teachers and guest speakers.
Was ‘Gym Rat’
Though his athletic skills were moderate, Perry was a “gym rat” who often spent weekends playing pickup games of basketball. He held minor spots on the football teams, but didn’t make the basketball squads.
After being cut from junior varsity, Perry, then a sophomore, asked if he could attend team practice nonetheless, to improve his skills and perhaps make the team the next year. “I thought sooner or later he’d drop off,” coach Malcolm Wesselink said. “But he stuck with it, and that did impress me.”
While perseverance showed one facet of Perry’s personality, his style on the court showed another: He was neither a team player nor a physical one.
“His game was a little flashy. You’re 15 years old, you can dribble between your legs, but you can’t hit a 12-foot jump shot,” Wesselink said. Moreover, he said, “Some kids are tough, hard-nosed, they go down on the floor and fight for the ball. Ed wasn’t like that. He wasn’t a tough kid.”
Instead, Wesselink saw a veneer of bravado in Perry: “He could project himself as a street-wise black, and that would impress everybody.”
Shannan Gorrell, 18, of Concord, N.H., recalled that in one class, Perry read aloud a report about how in Harlem “you really had to be street smart . . . how you had to protect your friends when they were in trouble.”
Students asked if life in Harlem was always so tough, whether “he really had to become a different person coming between Harlem and Exeter.”
“Yes,” she recalled him saying. “It is like a totally different environment--alien.”
Classmate Valerie Brown, 18, said: “I think it was rough for him to be from Harlem, with this being a prestigious school, and also very hard to go back to Harlem and deal with students who weren’t as successful as he was. You could sense it, that it was hard for him.”
Was to Attend Stanford
Nonetheless, Perry was to attend Stanford University in the fall, also on a scholarship. Friends said he planned to study business administration.
This is the police account of what happened June 12:
Officer Lee Van Houten, wearing plainclothes, walked down Morningside Drive at 9:30 p.m., watching for car thieves. Two youths “yoked him” from behind, pulling him to the ground, kicking and punching. He pulled his gun and shot one; the other fled. Perry died at St. Luke’s Hospital.
Though police say witnesses corroborate that story--and Van Houten was hospitalized overnight with bruises--Perry’s family reacted with outrage.
Veronica Perry said her son, with a summer job as a messenger at a Wall Street brokerage house, had no reason to rob anyone and had no criminal record. She accused the police of racism, charging that white officers shoot too quickly and too often at young blacks.
“White men hated to see his success,” his mother said. “That’s the only way I can figure it--they wanted to wipe him out.”
A state grand jury is investigating, as it does in all police shootings. And though the circumstances of Perry’s death can be debated, the tragedy of that death cannot.
Plummer, the educator who helped Perry reach Phillips Exeter, said: “It is a great loss. And a waste. What a waste.”