For Afrika Owes, a stretch at Rikers Island as a gun moll is turning out to be just a brief detour on her path from fancy prep school to a free ride at a leafy upstate college.
“I feel like I’ve overcome just a minor step to so much more that I have. This is just a start,” the Harlem 18-year-old told the Daily News last week after receiving her high school diploma.
A former scholarship student at the tony Deerfield Academy prep school in Massachusetts, the popular and admired Owes seemed destined for greatness.
Then came an arrest and jail term for running guns for her gangbanger ex-boyfriend.
But Owes is back on track. In the fall, she will attend Hobart and William Smith Colleges in upstate Geneva, on a full scholarship, according to her mother, Karen.
The $43,000-a-year institution on 195 acres along the shores of Seneca Lake ranks No. 64 on US News and World Report’s list of best liberal arts colleges.
“I’m happy. I’m ecstatic,” Owes said after her graduation from Millennium High School on Thursday.
Owes smiled from ear-to-ear as she posed for pictures, but admitted she teared up during the ceremony.
“At first, I was [thinking] it’s just graduation, I don’t really care. But then, I was like, ‘Oh, my God. I really did it,’ ” she said.
Owes danced across the stage in her red graduation gown after she grabbed her diploma.
“I guess I finally realized I did overcome something,” she said. “I’m about to really show people my potential.”
Her graduation day came exactly one year to the day from the start of jail term.
The brainy scholar, who wrote poetry, sang in her church choir and dreamed of the Ivy League, was caught in a roundup of the 137th Street Crew — a violent street gang charged with slinging crack in the shadow of the Abyssinian Baptist Church.
The 14-member crew peddled crack and recruited young girls to tote their weapons.
Ringleaders — including Owes’ then-boyfriend Jaquan (Jay Cash) Layne — ran the drug operation from Rikers Island.
In jailhouse phone calls to Layne, Owes complained of how heavy his gun was and listened as he instructed her how to shoot in an emergency: “head shots only.”
Her story — and her tears — twice appeared on the front page of The News.
The Rev. Calvin Butts and Abyssinian Baptist Church posted her $25,000 bail to spring her from Rikers Island. Owes grew up going to the W. 138th St. church and her mom lives down the block.
The church rallied behind her and congregants often filled the courtroom during her legal odyssey.
Butts said he was “filled with happiness” that Owes was able to get back on track and finish high school.
Owes, who was booted from Deerfield in May 2010 for what classmates said was unexplained absences, finished her final year of school at Millennium as part of a plea deal. She served three months in jail last summer in exchange for youthful offender status and vowed to stay on the straight and narrow.
Her ex-boyfriend was sentenced to 20 years to life.
At graduation, Owes’ mother beamed with pride, reflecting on her daughter’s past and realizing things could have turned out differently for the teenager she calls “Harlem’s darling.”
“I’m overjoyed,” she said. “It could have been a whole different picture.”
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- Abyssinian Development Corp., Annual Harlem Renaissance Day of Commitment Breakfast (harlemworldmag.com)