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Rev. Dr. Eugene Callender passes at 87

Herb Boyd | 11/7/2013, 2:46 p.m.

In his storied ministry, the Rev. Dr. Eugene Saint Clair Callender touched the lives of thousands, and none more significantly than those in desperate need of assistance and tittering on the brink of devastation. Callender’s angelic spirit made its transition on Nov. 2. He was 87.

Blessed with extraordinary leadership skills and motivated by a passion for social justice, Callender, who was born in Cambridge, Mass., on Jan. 21, 1926, of Barbadian ancestry, arrived in Harlem in 1950 and almost immediately began to put his endowed attributes to the service of the needy. The needy who flocked to him for comfort and care included alcoholics, drug addicts, the formerly incarcerated, battered women and severely abused children. None were turned away from his community-based clinic, where he began, with the help of a medical and psychological team, to detox heroin addicts. This initiative was instrumental in making the city see drug addiction as a public health issue.

At a very early age, Callender had demonstrated his ability to take charge, and no matter what organization or institution he joined, almost invariably, he rose to the top. His natural charisma and deep concern for the welfare of others was apparent at Cambridge Latin High School, where he graduated second in his class, the salutatorian.

Harvard University was his choice for college, but they had already filled their quota of African-Americans, so he enrolled at Boston University as a pre-med student. Competing with his academic excellence was his prowess on the basketball court, where he made the varsity team as a freshman, but his devotion to the ministry won out and thus he began his lifelong commitment to social justice and equal opportunity, particularly for Black Americans.

It was during his tenure as chaplain at Rikers Island in the early 1950s that he connected with a number of notable jazz musicians, including pianist Walter Bishop Jr., trombonist J.J. Johnson and trumpeter Chet Baker. Then came a succession of community involvements that put him on the ramparts with residents in a rent strike and with activist attorney Mark Lane in the struggle to protect and treat the mentally disabled and ultimately led him to organize the first Street Academy Program.

In 1957, his connection to the emerging Civil Rights Movement acquired national attention when he brought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. to Harlem. King, sharing the stage with the Duke Ellington Orchestra, spoke to about 25,000 people in front of the Hotel Theresa. Two years later, Callender succeeded the esteemed James Robinson as the minister at Presbyterian Church of the Master.

Alarmed by the high rate of high school dropouts, Callender founded Harlem Prep, which was an extension of his Street Academy Programs. No student could graduate from Harlem Prep unless they had been admitted to college—a unique requirement in education in the nation. Two thousand young people graduated from the school, many of them going on to acclaim in various fields of endeavor. Both of these institutions were predecessors to his more renowned Har-You Act, the nation’s first anti-poverty program.