50 Years of Guiding Young Scholars in Harlem

June 9, 2014

-09SIDEweb-master675Edouard E. Plummer works out of a room inside a Harlem public school that would be spacious — if it were a storage closet. Still, he has found a way to pack its shelves and cover its walls with a growing testament to a half-century of achievements that rival those of headmasters at the swankiest prep schools.

He would know; he’s friends with a lot of them. Since 1964, he has taken promising poor and minority children and, in one intense year, given them the academic and social tools to get into — and thrive at — the nation’s leading schools and beyond.

“This one went to Lawrenceville, then Yale,” Mr. Plummer said, pointing a worn yardstick to old news clippings and fliers on the wall. “This one, Peddie. Hotchkiss, St. Paul’s. This one went to Harvard undergrad and Harvard Law. This one’s a doctor. He ran for Congress.”

His smile betrayed his satisfaction. His words, however, underscored that despite getting more than 500 young people into 108 different boarding and preparatory schools though the Wadleigh Scholars Program, more needed to be done.

When he first set out on his mission, memories of segregation were fresh in his mind. He had attended West Virginia State University and, in 1949, applied to the Foreign Service. Despite having done well in history, German and biology, he was rejected.

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“They said, ‘Thank you, but we have nothing to offer you,’ ” he recalled. “You know why they did that. It was the color of my skin.”

He went on to serve in the military, then headed to Paris on the G.I. Bill of Rights. He soaked in the culture. He met expatriates who became his friends, like the writer James Baldwin. He then returned to the United States and, in 1959, bumped into a friend who helped him get a job at Wadleigh, a junior high school on East 114th Street, where he taught math and worked as a guidance counselor.

Five years later, a friend who taught at the Cheshire Academy in Connecticut invited him to visit. Around the same time, he read about A Better Chance, an organization that helped disadvantaged children get into prep schools. He decided his students needed that pipeline.

“I wanted these children to have the opportunities that my generation did not have,” Mr. Plummer, 85, said. “I lived through separate but equal. I knew about that.”

He has the air of someone who is not used to being told no. It’s a quality that quite likely served him well when he came back to Harlem and told the principal about his idea.

“He said, ‘You think you can get some of these children into those schools?’ ” Mr. Plummer recalled. “I looked at him and told him I’ve never been a flop in my life. I knew I could get them in. We had talented children in our school. The problem was when they got to high school they were lost. No one ever gave them the guidance and help they need to get to university.”

He devised an academic boot camp, preparing boys and girls for the secondary school test and offering etiquette classes (“You never know who you will meet”), trips to the theater and other events. Within a year, 18 were accepted into prep schools. The list of alumni keeps growing.

“Plummer was way ahead of his time,” said Christopher S. Auguste, now a partner at the law firm Kramer Levin in Manhattan, who got into Phillips Academy in the early 1970s thanks to the Wadleigh Scholars Program. “His focus was on black and Hispanic boys. He was seeing there was an issue brewing, which has become even more of a tragedy now.”

Indeed, he has found that fewer children come from the neighborhood around the school, where luxury buildings and upscale cafes have sprouted in recent years, pushing out minority residents. Before a study showed this year that New York State’s schools are the country’s most segregated, a look at local housing trends had already made that clear to him.

“Blacks and Latinos are not going to be helped, they’re going to be pushed out,” Mr. Plummer said. “They can’t afford it. Nobody gives a damn. Most of our students used to come from this area. Now, most don’t.”

One thing remains constant: his insistence that his young charges are achievers, not charity cases. He was reminded of something he said to his first class of scholars.

“You are as good as anyone else, or better,” he said. “There will be people who don’t want you there. But you have to go. You are the Jackie Robinsons of education. If he could do what he did, you can open the doors to those who follow behind you”(source).

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