A Secret Life

By David Abel  |  Globe Staff  |  1/24/2004

Something happened when he raised his voice.

The quiet, chubby student, so polite around campus
he answered professors "yes, sir" or "no, ma'am," seemed to channel the guttural roar of a southern preacher. As he thundered about the need for justice or the plagues of poverty, it was like his colleagues at Boston College Law School were witnessing the second coming of Martin Luther King Jr., a young man whose zeal, many believed, might one day propel him to the highest offices of the land.

Then he made the two-hour commute to his home for the past year, a musty room where he slept on a thin, vinyl mattress among hundreds of men crowded into one of the city's largest homeless shelters. There, isolated at the island refuge in Boston Harbor, the aspiring attorney often seemed like just another junkie, walking about aimlessly and hurting so much for the next high he sometimes begged others for money.

Arthur Cornelius Harris, a 27-year-old who made it from the ghetto to a few months shy of graduating one of the nation's top law schools, managed to bridge two very different worlds, and two very different identities.

But as he lurched toward a bright future, charming judges, professors, and friends while disguising a secret none imagined, he couldn't escape the darkness of the past, a place where, he once wrote gratefully: "The early grave that calls for me is still empty."

BORN INTO A LAND of preachers and agitators, his relatives among the vanguard who marched for civil rights, Arthur's upbringing in Montgomery, Ala., rarely emerged from the shadow of his city's history. "As black men in America today," his grandfather would tell him, "you have a debt you can never repay."

Given all the poverty, despair, and drug-driven violence around him, which he saw as the legacy of slavery, Arthur felt what he called an "awesome responsibility" to "make America live up to her promise of equality and justice."

The first challenge was surviving.

A latch-key middle child who grew up in one of Montgomery's most dangerous housing projects, Arthur's mother admonished him and his older brother to never open the door or answer the phone, unless it rang five times, until she returned home from her job as a hotel housekeeper.

But the then-scrawny boy couldn't escape the violence, no matter how adroit he became at talking his way out of trouble. Over the years, a neighbor, who enticed the fatherless boy with gifts, such as shoes and shirts, sexually abused him. And later, when his mother thought he was running with the wrong kids, she beat him up so badly, police held him for several days at a shelter for child abuse victims, eventually returning Arthur to live with his grandfather for several years. "I would whup them with a belt, wherever - wherever," said Mona Scott, his mother. "I wanted them to be afraid of me, to protect them."

When Arthur went to elementary school, one of only two blacks in his class, he would come home and say, "My name is not Arthur; my name is 'nigger.' That's what the kids call me."

Despite all the hard times, the boy with the oddly long arms began to stand out. In the fifth grade, he already showed a flair for speaking before a group, precociously articulate for a boy. "Whatever I required, he would go beyond the call of duty," said Rosa Abernathy, who taught Arthur in elementary school and later saw him whenever he returned home. "He was one of the best students I had in more than 40 years of teaching."

By the time he reached high school, after years of listening closely to the call and response at Sunday-morning services in the Baptist church near his home, he found his voice. Then having won election as president of his sophomore class and treasurer of the local youth group of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, he found his calling -- to be an "activist," as he would later proudly call himself.

Arthur earned respect through persistence. While holding a job as a cashier at a local drugstore, he kept score at basketball games, organized dances, performed in plays, wrote for the school newspaper, and once, one of the gangs at his junior high school tried to recruit him to help them with their schoolwork. As teachers watched him walk so purposefully around town, often passing an African head shop sign that read "Welcome to the Ghetto," they would say: "Look at that Arthur Harris. He's off to something."

Keeping busy helped him bottle up the inner turmoil -- the anger of meeting his father only once, when he was 15, the separation for most of his high school years from his mother, the repeated stops by police whose profile he often fit, and the struggling with his sexuality while relatives and reverends told him he would go directly to hell if he didn't mend his ways.

"I challenge anyone to go to my middle school or high school, live in my neighborhood, and come out any better than I did," Arthur wrote later. "Most yield to the grave, the prison, the drugs, or some other escape route. I was lucky."

FOLLOWING HIS MOTHER'S advice to leave Montgomery, and aiming to become the family's first college graduate, Arthur was admitted to the University of Alabama at Birmingham, 90 miles north of home.

Walking around campus in a conservative suit, with one pin or another fastened on his lapel, and often flashing his big smile, Arthur quickly made a name for himself among the campus's 10,000 undergraduates.

"I've never had a student touch me like Arthur," said Niyi Coker, a professor of African-American studies who became a mentor to the young man. "There was something special about him -- you just knew he was going places."

Though he found the schoolwork challenging and had to work fulltime as a stock boy at the campus bookstore and as a cashier at a local drugstore, Arthur made time for extracurricular activities.

Like Martin Luther King, he majored in sociology and
joined the prestigious black fraternity Alpha Phi Alpha, where he served as chaplain and led brothers on volunteer missions to local soup kitchens. Soon, Arthur sought a larger stage, and he practiced for it. As a freshman, standing sideways in front of his dorm-room mirror, he would put one hand in his pocket, extend the index finger of the other one, and rehearse theatrically stabbing the air.

By his senior year, he had served as president of the student government, chairman of the Black Student Union, president of the Omicron Delta Kappa National Leadership Honor society, and membership on everything from the university's mock trial team to the local YMCA's mentor program.

The titles were not mere resume builders. Arthur took his positions seriously -- and the administration took notice.

Once, he happened to pass the university president having her hair done in a local beauty parlor. Cornered, he unleashed a litany of student gripes. Then he told her how he thought she should wear her hair.

"He was the king of boldness," said Bettina Byrd-Giles, the assistant director of student programs while Arthur served as president. "He would say things no one else would dare."

He also learned how to attract the attention of those beyond campus.

To protest budget cuts in the university system, he led hundreds of students from schools around Alabama to the state capitol, eventually persuading lawmakers to rescind many cuts. When university trustees proposed severing the medical school from the campus, he organized a movement that hounded the trustees until they abandoned the idea. And when administrators suspended black fraternities and sororities for missing a campus meeting, he held a rally that attracted hundreds of students and local media, ultimately winning a lift of the suspension.

"Arthur was the type of student who made the administration scared," said Jalon Alexander, a friend who Arthur pushed into student politics and who eventually succeeded him as president. "By the way he spoke, he could make you believe in anything he wanted."

If administrators feared Arthur, they also respected him.

When President W. Ann Reynolds ran into him behind the counter of a drugstore, and realized how little money he had and how he sent much of it home, she decided - without telling him - to pay his tuition his senior year, $3,200. Then, after hearing Arthur was accepted to a special pre-law program for promising minorities at Suffolk University Law School, she used her frequent flier mileage to cover the cost of the flight to Boston.

"It was the best money I ever spent," said Reynolds, noting Arthur probably had more of an effect on the university than many administrators. "I wish I could have done more."

SINCE HIS TEENS, Arthur believed a law degree provided the key to power, the key to righting all the wrongs he saw around him.

But when he applied to some 20 law schools, none admitted him, the result, most likely, of never becoming a proficient test taker. So when he learned about the Council on Legal Education Opportunity's summer program in Boston, an intense 7-week course which offered him the a chance making it to law school, he decided to come north.

In 2000, standing on Boston's Freedom Trail for the first time, he wrote, "I was reborn right there on the spot by a thought … that somehow I had survived … I had finally made it out."

A few weeks later, he did something almost no other student has done before: Arthur talked his way into Boston Law School.

On a visit to Suffolk, Elizabeth Rosselot, BC Law's assistant dean of admissions, found herself in a room with Arthur, listening to him speak with "a fire" she had never seen in a prospective student. "It's usually about 'I, me, and mine,'" she said. "What I saw was just an incredible determination to beat the odds."

A half hour later, she promised him a spot in the class of 2004.

When he arrived a year later, after struggling to finish his math requirements in Alabama, the initial euphoria wore off quickly.

The first year of law school proved grueling, and Boston, the north, was different than he expected -- colder, not just in its climate, but less welcoming than he imagined.

Uneasily out of the closet and living among mostly well-off white students, Arthur thought he made a mistake, that perhaps he should drop out and move to Canada, or somewhere else he might escape homophobia and racism. As time passed, he would become indignant about law school and the "suburban" professors, who he saw as teaching more about process than action, about how to abide by the system instead of how to improve it.

"I too have a dream," he wrote in a paper titled "A Burning Desire for Justice" in the fall of his second year. "I am not like Thurgood Marshall, who only wanted a good legal job after law school, but ended up fighting for civil rights because there were no other opportunities … I came to the law with an understanding that I was to use it as a tool, to help stop the modern-day tidy ethnic cleansing of my people."

Fond of quoting the late Senator Paul Wellstone, he often urged people to "never separate the life you live from the words you speak." To many, he did just that.

Once, after discovering a website that charged the Coca Cola Co. with assorted barbaric acts, he refused to drink Coke, making his friends go from restaurant to restaurant in search of a place that served Pepsi. When a military recruiter came to campus, Arthur signed up for an interview and let the officer know how he felt about the military's policies excluding gays. And last year, while attending a local anti-war protest, Arthur whipped out his own bullhorn when he found the rally not quite spirited enough.

"Only Arthur could chastise people at an anti-war protest for being apathetic," said Sam Lieberman, a close friend of Arthur's at the law school.

Then he decided to move into a homeless shelter.

THE WAY HE EXPLAINED it, the abrupt decision seemed to make sense. After all, his friends and professors thought, this is Arthur Harris, not the typical law student.

When he moved in little more than a year ago, he told them he wanted to live with the people he planned to represent after school, because "sometimes," he explained, "you have to get down in the hole with them, in order to pull them out."

But not everyone bought Arthur's explanation, and though he assured them he would be fine and there was a method to his perceived madness, he confided to a few that there was another reason for his moving into the shelter - money.

Arthur had been living a ways from the law school, in an undergraduate dorm, working as a resident assistant. Although the job, which he didn't like, provided free room and board, the federal loans he received required the compensation - a value of about $8,000 - be deducted from his financial-aid package.

"He definitely preferred getting the money," said Christopher Strader, a fellow resident assistant and another of Arthur's close friends on campus. "He didn't like living alone. He was lonely."

He also seemed depressed, frequently confiding in friends and professors that he felt out of place, that his creativity had been drying up, that he wanted to drop out of law school, where he was diagnosed with a nonverbal disability and earned mostly Cs. Around the same time, reeling from a bout of unrequited love, he told friends he thought about buying a wedding ring, to avoid questions about his sexuality.

A year later, long after judges, professors, and friends welcomed him to live with them, many wonder whether Arthur had another reason for living in the shelter, one he refused to reveal.

"It seemed, at first, like a completely irrational decision to live in a shelter if you didn't have to," said Mary Ann Chirba-Martin, a professor who described him as "a fish out of water" at law school. "Perhaps he found a piece of home there."

TO GET TO THE SHELTER, Arthur usually took public transportation from the Newton campus to the Boston Medical Center, where he waited for a bus that took him and scores of other homeless men and women more than 10 miles away, through Quincy, down a desolate road and across a rickety bridge to one of the old quarantine hospitals on Long Island.

When he first arrived in December of 2002, the shelter assigned him a social worker and a bed, No. 313. "He said he had no family, no friends, and no support, and he didn't know what he would do," said Valerie Pruitt, who served as his case manager and knew Arthur attended law school.

The two kept in touch over the months, mostly by phone or e-mail. When Pruitt offered Arthur the possibility of moving into a better shelter - a recovery program where he might have his own room - he said he wasn't interested.

Over the year, Arthur made several good friends at the shelter, most of whom couldn't understand why he chose to live in a place they would have left in a hot minute. He found a lover there, but then something happened. In September, at 31, Ricky Negron, suddenly died, one of eight homeless people to die last year as the the result of a heroin overdose.

The loss devastated Arthur.

"He would say, 'I wish I was with Ricky - I wish he didn't have to die,'" said Robert Wooden, 52, a friend from the shelter.

A few months before, other friends noticed, Arthur had started acting strangely. "He would come up to me and ask me for $10 or $20," said Leon Smith, 21, who spent weekends going to the movies or eating out with Arthur.

Then Smith and others noticed a pattern: Arthur would return from school around 7 p.m., eat dinner in the shelter's cafeteria, and then walk the refuge's dark corridors, hunting for what he called "pop."

It was a good night, when he found it and had the money.

"He liked the way it made him feel, and he encouraged me to try it," Smith said. "It got rid of the depression and made him joyous. He would come up and kiss me and sing, 'There's no me without you … I'm so happy to be alive."

As summer gave way to fall and the cold of Thanksgiving blew over the island, Arthur began seeking a more direct high. Rather than sniffing the white powder, he asked David Johnson, a 35-year-old veteran junkie who slept a few beds away, to teach him how to shoot up the heroin.

"He didn't really understand the road it was taking him down," Johnson said. "I wanted him to look at my life, to see how awful it is, and how it's like we're all in a boat, pulling different oars, sinking."

ON THE EVENING OF Nov. 22, after e-mailing friends about his plans to return to Alabama to promote his latest cause - electing Howard Dean president - he hopped off the bus and sat down for dinner with his friend Carlos Ramirez.

As they devoured a plate of rice and beans in the shelter's cafeteria, Ramirez noticed something wasn't quite right about Arthur.

"Who's got pop around here?" he kept asking Ramirez, 23, who met Arthur a few months before at another shelter in Boston.

Later, after dinner broke up, Ramirez found Arthur on the shelter's third floor, in the TV room. He was wearing shorts and sandals, but sweating profusely.

"He was a wreck," said Ramirez, who noticed his eyebrows looked puffy, his eyes red, and a white powder coating his upper lip and nostrils. "He looked like he was going to blow up."

Ramirez touched his arm, but Arthur didn't seem to feel anything. "I said, Arthur, what's wrong with you?"

Shortly after, he saw Arthur hunched over, his eyes rolling and dilating. As Arthur slowly made his way to the bathroom, he assured Ramirez he was fine. "Don't worry about me," he said.

At 5:30 the next morning, when Arthur hadn't cleared out with the 143 other men on his floor, shelter officials found him in bed.

He was dead.

HOW COULD A YOUNG man who had so much promise and who regularly preached against such poison have fallen into the trap of the most dangerous, addictive drugs?

"Arthur loved everyone," said Niyi Coker,
his professor at the University of Alabama. "He fought everyone's causes, but in the final analysis, Arthur forgot to love himself, and in doing that, he cheated the world of everything he could have contributed."

When his mother learned of Arthur's drug use, she couldn't believe it. "He lived a double life," Mona Scott said. "I guess he knew not to tell me, because I would've been up there in a minute, escorting him to classes, if necessary."

At Boston College, where he managed to keep his drug problem a secret, administrators, professors, and friends couldn't understand the contradiction -- of how much Arthur, in the end, actually separated the words he spoke from the life he lived.

"It makes me think he must have been in pain, a lot of pain," said Norah Wilie, the law school's assistant dean of students, who added Arthur's name would be noted during graduation this year among the students listed in the class of 2004. "It's hard to understand why people can make such tragically bad choices."

And for many of his closest friends, who knew him only as a wellspring of inspiration and a model for anyone to pattern their lives, the loss of Arthur represents the defeat of a force for so much good.

"I thought Arthur was going to change the world - I felt that deep in my bones," Christopher Strader said. "That's what's so sad. The world's going to be completely normal without him."

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.

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