Edmund Perry 30 Years Later: A Harlem Retrospective

On June 12, 1985 seventeen year old Edmund Perry was shot to death in Harlem by a white police officer. Eddie’s death made headline news and sparked protest, not because he was a young black male shot by a white police officer, but because Eddie didn’t fit the bill of what could have otherwise been portrayed as the death of a thug whose life doesn’t matter. Eddie’s story was an anomaly. He was an honor student who had recently graduated from Phillips Exeter Academy, one of the top prep schools in the country. He had just gotten his acceptance letter to Stanford University. Eddie and I knew each other at Exeter. In fact, the week of the shooting, I had invited him to meet me at my step father’s theater on Lenox Avenue right off of 125th Street. They were performing Jonin, a play about a group of black students attending a university and I thought he’d be inspired by a black owned theater production company. I wanted to introduce him to my step-father, Voza, a man revered in the Harlem arts community. Voza Rivers was (and still is) the Executive Director of the New Heritage Theater, the oldest Black nonprofit theater company in New York City originated in 1964 by the late Roger Furman. Unfortunately, Eddie never showed up to the theater that week and it wasn’t until later that I learned why. I saw a picture of his face on the nightly news. There were protests.

This June makes thirty years since that incident. Today, you’ll pretty much find much of the same on the news – pictures of black males killed by police and uprisings. The conversation hasn’t changed much either. The spin is either the war on crime and police heroism or the effects of endemic racism and police brutality. History repeats itself. By contrast, thirty years later, the New Heritage Theatre is no longer on 125th Street. The theater lost its home over two decades ago. New Heritage has been a theater without a home for a long time. Just last week, the theater moved its offices from Striver’s Row into a space on 139th Street across from a police precinct. There is irony in this homelessness and the new location. In another life, my step-father Voza who still manages the business was an undercover cop very much like the man who shot Eddie, except he was black. It was only after he retired that he was able to dedicate all of his time to theater. When the theater had a home, Voza became a Harlem icon. He was the humble black man who brought a South African play (Sarafina!) to Harlem and later it went on to Broadway. Now, Voza walks me to the back of the new office space which is a fenced-in yard in the middle of Harlem. There a young black male artist is directing a small group of teenagers for an upcoming performance. Home or no home, Voza has been a mentor to hundreds of young black artists in Harlem. What might have happened if Eddie met my step father a week before the shooting?

Stories are like vessels shaped from wet clay under a potter’s hands. While each pot conforms to the stylistic and utilitarian conventions of a single society at a certain moment in time, it simultaneously bears the tell-tale traces of an individual’s potter’s hands. [1] Thirty years later, I keep revisiting Eddie’s story and I watch it transform my thinking. I think about how juxtaposing Eddie’s life with my step-father’s life in Harlem teaches me something different about black people and the power of storytelling. A white writer by the name of Robert Sam Anson wrote a book about Eddie. His son attended Exeter and he became obsessed with the story. His book was published and made into a movie. It was called Best Intentions: The Education and Killing of Edmund Perry. What trace does Anson leave on our understanding of black youth in Harlem after reading that story? What lens was missing about the complexities of being a smart and successful black man in society?

Yes, history repeats itself. Yet, every time a person tells or retells a story, our understanding of history and who we are in it is transformed. Stories make it possible to overcome our separateness, to find common ground and find common cause. [2] What then is our responsibility when we tell the story of Edmund Perry, Eric Garner or Baltimore? What should we say when we talk about the lives of black people or the oppressive conditions of the poor? Who are we when we become the narrators of someone else’s despair or rage that is often attached to the lives of people of color and what is our obligation in that story telling?

Thirty years ago Edmund Perry, an honor student was shot dead in Morningside Park inHarlem. Not too far from the crime scene, an ex-cop by the name of Voza Rivers was busy organizing the guest list for a black theatrical production about students attending a university resembling Howard. On the week of the shooting, these two men were supposed to meet. Perhaps this meeting would not have altered current events but it does alter our understanding of black men in Harlem. It is a story that shakes up the common narrative, the one that is often silenced. It is the one that tells us that the life of a black man in Harlem is as varied and complex as any other life in New York City. It tells us that not only do black lives matter, but blacks are inspirational leaders that continue to shape and mold the best and the brightest in their own communities.

[1] [2] The Politics of Storytelling, Michael Jackson (2006)