While coming of age in Harlem, New York during the 80s-era Kevin Richardson—a member of the Exonerated Five—often envisioned a future that spanned far beyond his circumstances. Outside the window of his family’s Schomburg Plaza apartment nestled in the heart of the neighborhood was a community grappling with poverty, crime and violence; inside of Richardson’s mind were dreams of taking his passions for music and the game of basketball to Syracuse University. Those aspirations were abruptly halted due to an unjust system, but despite the odds, Richardson is living proof that through the power of perseverance a dream deferred can eventually become a dream that is realized. He was recently awarded by Syracuse University with an honorary Bachelor of Arts in Fine Music and the institution has launched a scholarship fund in his name to support Black and Latinx students from underserved communities.
Music is embedded in Richardson’s roots. The sound of his mother’s vocals filled their apartment as she loved to sing. His older sisters—who were background dancers for the legendary rapper Kurtis Blow—were part of an aspiring music group. As a child, Richardson was immersed in music courses at Jackie Robinson Junior High School and hoped to one day play for Syracuse’s band. Aside from music, he had hoop dreams. He wanted to follow in the footsteps of legendary basketball stars like Derrick Coleman, Pearl Washington, Sherman Douglas, and Billy Owens; all of whom donned the orange and white jersey. “I wanted to express myself through music because I was raised in a household of music. As a child, I also played basketball and loved the Big East Conference,” he told NewsOne. “Going to school upstate from the city would have been an outlet for me. A lot was going on in the 80s in New York City.”
His plans to go to college were tragically disrupted after Richardson—along with then teenagers Yusef Salaam, Raymond Santana, Korey Wise, and Antron McCray—was wrongfully convicted of the rape and assault of a jogger in Central Park in 1989. Richardson was only 14 years of age when he was convicted. The innocent teens were forced to spend their formative years behind bars and their wrongful incarceration brought the country’s flawed criminal justice system to the forefront of a national conversation and sparked a fight for justice. Richardson, Salaam, Santana, McCray, and Wise were exonerated in 2002 after convicted murderer and rapist Matias Reyes admitted he was responsible for the crime. Upon his exoneration, Richardson has been dedicated to reclaiming the years that were stolen from him by bringing the dreams he never got to accomplish to fruition and empowering individuals from communities like Harlem. “When you go through what I went through you appreciate the things you might have taken for granted,” he said. “When I was incarcerated, I remember sitting in my cell and missing the things I couldn’t do. I couldn’t go out and live. Now, I live by the slogan ‘Every day live life like it’s golden’ because I know what it’s like to be on the other side. I value life and I appreciate everything that is happening for me in this chapter.”
Syracuse University recently bestowed Richardson with an honorary degree. The honor was historic as it marks the first time in the institution’s 150-year history that an individual has received an honorary undergraduate degree in fine arts. Richardson says being awarded with the degree was a full-circle moment for him. “When I heard the words from the chancellor it set in that I’m a Syracuse alum,” he said. “Those words were beautiful to me. I’ve had a connection to Syracuse since I was a kid, but to make it official was really a blessing. I was ecstatic to be alive to witness it. To be the first in the school’s history to have an honorary bachelor’s in fine arts blows my mind.” The Harlem native is also putting the focus on paying it forward and is on a mission to use education as a vessel to uplift youth from inner-city neighborhoods. Syracuse University has created a scholarship in his honor under its Our Time Has Come (OTHC) Scholarship Program to eliminate socio-economic barriers that stand in the way of Black and Latinx youth advancing their education. The scholarship fund has been a collective effort led by Syracuse alums Tara Favors, Rachel Vassel, who serves as Assistant Vice President of the university’s Office of Multicultural Advancement, and Miko Horn who is the school’s Director of Alumni Events.
“Our Time Has Come Scholarship is a program benefiting Black and brown students at Syracuse like myself who was a first-generation grad,” Vassel told NewsOne. “It’s an honor for me to oversee that program now. It still helps so many students from areas around the country where financial support is needed. We want to grow the scholarship fund so there will be Kevin Richardson scholars for many years to come. The more money we have in the scholarship fund, the more students we can help, and we know that is really important to Kevin and his legacy at Syracuse.” The fund has received an outpour of support from Syracuse’s 1995 graduating class; many of whom would have been Richardson’s classmates if he was able to attend college. The goal is to endow the scholarship fund at $100,000.
For Richardson, the initiative is all about building a legacy and driving impact that will reverberate for generations to come. “The scholarship is near and dear to my heart because all I want to do is leave my legacy for others to follow. When I’m not here, that name will still ring bells at the university and across the world,” he said. He encourages youth—including his 12-year-old daughter who he hopes will attend Syracuse in the future—to tap into the power of education. Richardson is dedicated to showing up for his community. Aside from the scholarship fund, he is laying the groundwork for a foundation centered on youth development initiatives and recidivism.
When it comes to the looming presidential election, it is personal for Richardson. Donald Trump took out full newspaper ads calling for the death penalty less than two weeks after the Exonerated Five were wrongfully accused. Richardson wants individuals to let their voices be heard loud and clear at the polls. “I think people tend to forget our ancestors died for us to exercise our right to vote. I need people to get out there and vote and express themselves because at one point we couldn’t do that. Every vote counts. On November 3rd please show up and show out.”
Richardson—who is led by the love of his family and his passion to uplift his community—hopes his journey will inspire individuals who are facing difficult circumstances to look towards the light and turn their pain into purpose.