From Dirt Floors to PhD: The Life of Pargellan McCall

A woman who didn’t take no for an answer

Isaiah McCall
Published in
5 min readFeb 26, 2021


Photos: courtesy of the author

Pargellan McCall is the kind of person who comes to life when you describe her. She’s the type of person who’ll make sure you know when you’ve disrespected her. After, she’ll happily serve you a hot plate of collard greens and cornbread.

She doesn’t ever take no for an answer. She didn’t when her country wrote her off as someone who wouldn’t amount to more than the dirt floors she grew up on, or when they told her she couldn’t go to college with four kids in her mid-thirties. And she certainly didn’t take it for an answer when she later got her PhD and became dean of students at Fairleigh Dickinson University.

She’s tenacious, selfless, and yes, she is my grandmother.

It’s easy to talk about anyone’s grandmother in a positive light. After all, I’m sure everyone has something nice to say about their grandma (at least you better if mine has anything to say about it).

For me, there’s a respect I have for my grandmother that I can’t fully describe. It’s not just a respect for age but respect for her character.

The poverty, racism, and overall harsh living conditions she grew up in were her motivation. She’d consider that muskrat in the trap worth your pity instead.

That man made a mean bottle of moonshine

For my grandmother — born in North Carolina in 1934, at the height of Jim Crow — childhood was perhaps one of her greatest struggles to overcome.

“It was me, my father, my mother, and my seven other siblings all fighting day-to-day to survive,” my grandmother said. “I was the middle child, and if we didn’t look after each other, we would’ve been dead.”

Her father, Walter McCall, was a sharecropper and a bootlegger. Sharecropping entailed a landowner allowing a tenant to use their land in return for a share of the crops produced on their portion of…