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Harvard University economics professor Roland G. Fryer, Jr. endured a tough childhood full of crime and dysfunction to become the youngest Black person to earn tenure at the prestigious school. Fryer was born in Daytona Beach, Fla. on June 4, 1977. His mother, Rita, was a classically trained musician and his father was once a high school math teacher.

According to Fryer, his mother abandoned him when he was 4, although a New York Times profile suggests that the father essentially took his son away. Fryer was raised in Lewisville, Texas after his mother moved to Tulsa, Okla. He spent summers in Daytona Beach with his grandmother, witnessing his older cousins and uncles engaging in selling crack cocaine.

One of those summers, he saw the family’s crack operation eradicated after a federal raid which led to convictions for his grandmother, grandfather and two cousins.Back in Lewisville, Fryer was a standout basketball and football player but was also selling drugs and committing petty crimes. However, he was able to win an athletic scholarship from the University of Texas at Arlington, but never played for the school.

He joined the Honors College and won an academic scholarship, graduating in two years while maintaining a full-time job. He earned a Ph.D in Economics from Penn State in 2002. He became a member of Harvard’s faculty shortly after, joining its Society of Fellows. Although he was only able to do research work early on, his work impressed his collegiate mentors and peers.

Fryer has published works on the causes and consequences of distinctively Black names, affirmative action, the impact of the crack cocaine epidemic, and historically black colleges and universities, among other research papers.

Today, he is the Henry Lee Professor of Economics at Harvard University, a research associate at the National Bureau of Economic Research, and the founder and faculty director of the Education Innovation Laboratory at Harvard. Fryer has also won the Sloan Research Fellowship, a Faculty Early Career Development Award from the National Science Foundation, and the inaugural Alphonse Fletcher Award. In 2011, he was awarded a MacArthur “Genius Grant” as well.

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