People in Your Neighborhood: Run-ins with racism didn’t deter Len Perry’s belief that ‘my place is on top’

Leonard "Len" Perry, pictured in 2018, says his early experiences with racism spurred him to rise above it.

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Leonard “Len” Charles Perry has endured much to achieve much, leaning on lessons from his younger years to keep him focused.

The 96-year-old resident of a La Jolla-area senior-living community said his professional success as a contract lawyer for space and other projects “didn’t happen overnight” and was “a progression of things,” shaped by formative experiences with racism that leave him bewildered even today.

Perry was born in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1924, the son of an attorney and the grandson of a freed slave who became an attorney, according to biographical information from his daughter Valorie Ashley.

“I’m a black guy raised in a Jewish neighborhood,” Perry said. The significance of that was illustrated by a memory of when Perry accompanied his mother to a grocery store when he was 7 or 8 years old.

Perry and his mother placed their items on the counter and awaited their turn to pay. But the clerk served the white man who came in after them.

“I grabbed my mama’s apron strings,” Perry said. “She told me to stop. Later she told me, ‘Son, you got to learn your place.’”

Perry said that shocked him. “What do you mean ‘learn my place’? My place is on top!”

Perry said that incident and his belief that he belonged on top informed the rest of his life. “Everything I’ve achieved … everything I did, worked. I never failed at anything,” he said.

Perry said he pushed himself to be better, further explaining his success with a story from his high school years as a record-breaking track athlete.

“I was not the fastest guy,” he said. “I saw the hurdles, the high hurdles. I thought maybe if I could learn to hurdle, I could pick up speed, get over the hurdles faster than the next guy. I did it! I worked at everything; I gave my all.”

Still, Perry encountered racism. He recalled a moment with his high school swim team in Cleveland in 1941 when he and 11 other boys went to a YMCA pool to practice. Perry, the only black student in the group, was denied entry. “’You can’t use our pool,’ they told me. I was trying to do good. It’s unexplainable.”

Undaunted, Perry continued to pursue his goal of becoming a lawyer like his father and grandfather. He dropped out of high school when drafted to serve in World War II, but returned to Cleveland after the war to finish his formal education.

He attended law school, passed the Ohio bar exam and began a career as a contract specialist with the Army. Along the way he married Elinor Blackwell.

Perry excelled in his career, gaining recognition for his work with the NASA Lewis Research Center in Cleveland in the 1950s and ‘60s, overseeing contract administration in the development of General Dynamics’ Centaur booster, which sent a Jet Propulsion Laboratory satellite to the moon to collect data for use in planning the Apollo project. Perry traveled among four sites in three states to complete contract negotiations. His legal counsel was sought after.

Perry was sworn in to practice law before the U.S. Supreme Court by then-Chief Justice Earl Warren in 1968. He retired from government service in 1970 but began a second career three days later with General Dynamics’ Convair Division, relocating Elinor and their three children from Ohio to San Diego. Elinor died in 2015.

Perry oversaw contract administration at Convair for nine years, during and after which he taught contract law at Western State College of Law in Orange County. He retired from Convair in 1979 and entered private law practice until his final retirement several years later.

When asked about his greatest achievement, Perry struggled to name one but referred to his early experiences with racism, reiterating how they spurred him to rise above it.

The current Black Lives Matter movement, Perry said, tugs at him to remember the civil-rights movement of the 1960s. “I wasn’t physically active with [the 1960s movement], but I was financially involved. I was really impressed with Martin Luther King Jr. and what he was trying to accomplish.”

In trying to answer what people can do now to battle racism, Perry said he’s confused by its persistence. “It’s very, very difficult,” Perry said. “I don’t know what to say; I never thought it would end up this way.”

Perry believes the solution lies in learning. One of his oft-repeated phrases is “education is the great equalizer.”

“It’s a truism,” Perry said. “Never give up an opportunity to learn something.” ◆