Thomas Sowell was born in rural North Carolina in 1930 to a family with no electricity or running hot water. His father died before he was born and his mother, a maid, passed away giving birth to his younger brother a few years later. The orphaned Sowell was taken in by a great aunt, who raised him as her son and hid from him the fact that he was adopted and had a sister and four brothers. The family relocated, first to Charlotte, North Carolina, and later, when Sowell was eight years old, to New York City’s Harlem neighborhood, where he was raised thereafter.
A bright student with a tumultuous home life, Sowell was admitted to one of New York’s most competitive high schools but dropped out at age 16. He left home a year later, after a magistrate labeled him a “wayward minor,” and moved into a shelter in the Bronx for homeless boys, where he kept a knife under his pillow at night for protection. He took whatever jobs were available at the time—messenger, laborer—for a black high school dropout with few marketable skills. He didn’t get around to earning a college degree until he was already in his late 20s and had served in the Marines.
Photo by James Andrews/iStock