H. Carl McCall has not only made history in New York politics but also laid the framework for other Black politicians to follow in his footsteps.
His journey includes serving as state senator representing Harlem, an ambassador to the United Nations and becoming the first African-American to be elected New York State comptroller.
McCall was appointed chairman of the State University of New York Board of Trustees in October 2011 and is now retiring. As he makes his graceful exit from the position, he spoke with the AmNews during a recent interview to reflect on his career.
“For so many people of my generation, we were the first to do something,” he said. “What was important about that was to show that we could do it. If we could demonstrate that we could take these positions, which Black folks had never held before, and do them well, that would pave the way for other people to get that same opportunity.”
A native of Boston, Mass., McCall enrolled at Dartmouth College in 1954 where he was one of only eight Black students throughout the university. At the time, Ivy Leagues instituted a policy only allowing four Black students per academic class.
“I was raised by my mother and five sisters. Education was transformative in my own life. We didn’t have the materialistic things, but my mother showed us the importance of education,” said McCall. “Because of her support, I was able to get scholarships to go to an Ivy League college. Which put me in position to accomplish all the things I’ve done.”
McCall worked as a teacher and at a bank in Boston before joining the U.S. Army. He moved to New York in the 1960s where he worked his first job as a community organizer for New York City Mission Society in Brooklyn. There he helped Black churches get involved in the community and register Black people to vote.
He also worked to improve the quality of education, housing and healthcare in the community. The work was close to his heart and he continued it in his position when he was elected to the New York State Senate representing the upper Manhattan district from 1975 to 1980.
“I worked with the Harlem community with education, housing and healthcare,” he said. “Whatever position I’ve had, I’ve always worked with the community to empower them.”
In 1983, McCall was appointed by then-Gov. Mario Cuomo to serve as the state’s commissioner of Human Rights. McCall also worked at Citigroup. However, it was the injustice he faced while being one of the few Blacks at Dartmouth that inspired him to be an activist for equal education in New York and helped him become president of the New York City Board of Education from 1991 to 1993.
It was the year he left the BOE that the New York State Legislature selected McCall to fill the unexpired term of Republican Edward Regan as state comptroller. McCall was elected to full term to the statewide office from 1994 to 2002.
In 2007, McCall joined the State University of New York’s Board of Trustees to further his vision for equal education for all. Four years later he was appointed chairman of the SUNY Board of Trustees. He believes the education fight is a steady uphill climb and people should not give up on education. “Education made a difference in my life. I’ve always worked to make sure it can make a difference in the lives of young people,” said McCall. “That’s the reason why I became a board member. I wanted to make sure it can change the lives of the young people that I’m serving as chairman of the board.”
As McCall leaves SUNY’s Board of Trustees, he will be leaving the largest higher education system in the country. A system that has nearly 65 campuses and serves over 450,000 students. His long list of accomplishments includes setting groundbreaking policy for the public education system. He hopes his legacy is remembered by his love for serving people and his push for education for all.
“As I retire, my message to everyone is work hard, get a good education and as you move up the ladder, pull somebody behind you,” he said. “Believe in yourself and believe in your abilities.”