In 2019, many of us learned the story of Kevin Richardson, who was one of five teenagers wrongly convicted for the 1989 rape of a white woman jogging in New York City’s Central Park.
Netflix’s When They See Us gave us a glimpse into Richardson’s life before and after it was derailed by our corrupted criminal justice system, and one of the most heartbreaking scenes involved Richardson’s aspirations to grow up and play the trumpet for Syracuse University’s marching band.
Sadly, he was denied the opportunity to ever pursue that dream as a youth, but thanks to the students of Syracuse University—who started a petition to reward Richardson for his perseverance—the youngest member of the Exonerated Five received an honorary degree from Syracuse during a virtual ceremony on October 16.
And in speaking to The Root, Richardson took a moment to reflect on how surreal it was to finally fulfill his lifelong dream of becoming a graduate at such a prestigious university.
“I never thought that it would happen,” he told The Root. “When you’re a child, and you have dreams and hopes coming from the inner city, I always thought it would be cool to attend [Syracuse], but I never got the opportunity. Just to think it all started from being on When They See Us Now—which was the interview with Oprah—basically just speaking from my heart. She asked me about it and I said I wanted to attend Syracuse University, but I was robbed of the opportunity.
“That line right there sent waves throughout the world. Then Syracuse University got in touch with me—Rachel Vassel (Syracuse’s assistant vice president of multicultural advancement) and people of that nature. So to see everything come into full swing is just incredible. I’m just happy that I’m actually here to really receive this, because it could have been a different way.”
What’s also interesting is that honorary degrees are typically doctorates, but Richardson insisted on receiving a bachelor of fine arts in music instead. In explaining his decision, he pointed to his childhood aspirations as the deciding factor.
“If I would’ve went to university and graduated in the 90s, maybe class of 95 or 96, it would’ve been a degree in that form,” he explained. “So I wanted to have the same effect that I would have gotten had I attended the university. So I think that suits me well.”
He’s also keenly aware that there are plenty of other Black and Brown folks who have fallen victim to our criminal justice system. So receiving his honorary degree not only fulfilled a lifelong dream, but serves to inspire others to never give up on their own.
“I love to be the first of anything,” Richardson said. “So just to be the first in school history to get an [honorary] undergraduate bachelor’s [degree] is beautiful. And to set the way for others to follow. Out of everything, that’s all I really wanted to do. Just inspire others.
“If I could do it, after all I’ve been through 30 years ago…to be standing strong and positive and weather the storm, then you can do it as well. Because it wasn’t easy. It took every ounce of strength. […] So I think if I could do it, anyone can do it, too. And just that alone gives me the strength to keep doing what I’m doing.”
He’s also incredibly proud of Syracuse’s Kevin Richardson Fund, a scholarship fund that supports Black and Brown students. It was announced as part of the school’s Our Time Has Come Scholarship last year during a ceremony honoring Richardson.
“That’s another thing that’s really dear to me,” he said. “That was presented to me when I made my first visit to the university. […] To have my name attached [and] have Black and Brown kids get an opportunity to attend school—coming from the inner city or wherever in the city they’re from—to get that opportunity is the best thing that I can do. […] That’s very dear to my heart.”
And in using his journey to provide inspiration and opportunities for so many others, Richardson wanted to make one point clear: to never give up on the dreams and aspirations that each of us holds dear.
“Once I got incarcerated, I thought that ship had sailed,” he said. “When I was in prison, I got my [associate in arts]. And at that time, Governor Pataki stopped education in prison. So I thought, ‘Well, that’s where I’m ending.’ So I just want to tell people to never give up on what you believe in. Because there is light.
“Especially this year, period. Dealing with the pandemic, dealing with people of color getting killed, dealing with people dying. It’s easy to give up hope. But you have to find that strength from within. […] Even in your darkest times, you will come out of it.”