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Students from the Street: A Look at Dartmouth’s Foundation Years Project

A short-lived 1960s-era program that transported street-smart Chicago Vice Lords to the hallowed halls of the Ivy League school has been largely forgotten—except by those who volunteered for the ride

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A Foundation Years reunion photo taken in Chicago in May 2011
A Foundation Years reunion photo taken in Chicago in May 2011 (from left, back row) Cecil Davis, Allan “Tiny” Evans, Paul Cooper, Michael Orr, Henry Jordan, Paul Rahmeier, C. Siddha Webber, and Henry Crumpton (front row) William Burks and Percy Wiggins
 

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Meet the students from the street

Not everyone made it. Eddie “Peppilow” or “Pep” Perry, famous throughout the West Side as the founder of the Vice Lords, entered Dartmouth in the fall of 1969. When he headed east, the Chicago Sun-Times ran a story about Perry’s latest exploit. “I’m not going to Dartmouth to be a savior or something for black people,” he was quoted. “I’m going ’cause I want to come back here, Chicago, and have a good life, build a family.” But he never got the hang of Dartmouth academics and dropped out after a little more than a year. “Some people didn’t want to ask for the help that they needed,” says Paul Rahmeier. “They were too proud. That was Pep.”

Ultimately, it wasn’t just the Chicago guys getting the hang of Dartmouth, it was Dartmouth getting the hang of the guys.

C. Siddha Webber also entered in 1969 and had an awful time with John Lincoln. He kept getting Ds, though he was verbally eloquent. (He would later be ordained as a minister and earned a Ph.D. from McCormick Theological Seminary.) Then, at a poetry reading in his second year, he got a hit response to a rap-poem he’d written: “The White Man on the Moon.” The success made Webber a minor campus celebrity, and members of the English department congratulated him. Webber remembers that Lincoln, who has since died, showed some remorse about grading him so hard. “He admitted he had some racial issues,” says Webber, now a musician, preacher, and naprapath with an office in the Loop. “Then he asked me to help him with his reading list.”

If making it at Dartmouth was complicated, making it after Dartmouth wasn’t automatic, either. And those who left without a degree were back on the street where they started—and arguably worse off. “I was a street hustler [before Dartmouth],” says Crumpton, who left without graduating. “And when I came back, I came back awkward. People didn’t see me as the same person who left these streets.” He got involved in drugs, an addiction which he has since kicked. “One of the reasons people gravitate to drugs is disillusionment,” he says. Crumpton doesn’t blame Dartmouth, but it’s hard for him not to see the experience as part of the mix that caused him to waste 37 years before he got clean.

Others didn’t pull out of it. Eddie Perry had died by 1980; after dropping out of Dartmouth, he was weakened by drugs and suffered liver failure. The irony is that in those few years when some of the West Side’s smartest young men were in Hanover, crack and gunplay took over whole swaths of the inner city. Chicago’s biggest gangs (including the Vice Lords and the South Side’s Blackstone Rangers) became intractably violent and, by the early 1970s, ill suited for any experiment like the Foundation Years. Change in the neighborhood, plus the increased expenses connected to the growing contingent of ex–gang leaders, motivated Dartmouth to discontinue the program after 1969 (the last Foundation Years students graduated in 1973). By then, Dartmouth was putting other affirmative action programs into place.

Those who got degrees never made it to the pinnacle of their professions. Henry Jordan graduated from Northwestern Law School, but his heart was not in it, and he did not pass the bar. He had some jobs in law firms, but his friend Cynthia Kobel, a relative of the Montgomery family, which funded the Foundation Years, says Jordan believed he was frequently used as a token black. He preferred to think of himself as an artist, and Kobel says that the most satisfying thing he did was teach art in Cabrini-Green. Today, he struggles with speaking and moving after suffering two strokes.

As for Tiny Evans, after graduation, he started at Dartmouth’s Tuck School of Business because he was eager to earn money. “But they told me that at Tuck they don’t teach you how to make money, they teach you how to manage money.” So he returned to Chicago, where he worked for a while at the accounting firm Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co., which he found “square” and boring. Later, he made money selling used cars.

Evans has had many other jobs along the way. He was a case manager in a mental health program on the West Side. During the Harold Washington administration, he organized a program to counsel gang members toward school and away from violence. Midcareer, he earned a master’s degree in education and worked for Chicago Public Schools in a variety of neighborhoods. He retired a year ago but still works with kids at the American Boys Commonwealth youth center, a safe refuge for him when he was growing up in North Lawndale.

What you discern from Evans is that he never really left the street. “My wife says I sleep on the South Side but I live on the West Side,” he says.

He has no regrets. “I did everything I wanted to do,” he says. “I never sold out.” He takes genuine pleasure in his family: kids, grandkids, and one great-grandchild. “I don’t have a lot of money, but I am rich.” Most of his grandchildren are in college or will go. “One of them goes to Cornell,” he notes with particular pride.

“A lot of gang guys tell their kids, ‘Don’t be like me.’ But I went to college. I can say, ‘Be like me.’ See, you can make it in America even if it takes time,” Evans says. “For me, my family, Dartmouth was the start of something, and that’s good.”

 

Photograph: Courtesy of Paul Rahmeier

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