From Dirt Floors to PhD: The Life of Pargellan McCall
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 land. It gave local Black folks a small slice of the affluent farming industry.
Her dad would make and sell moonshine in the period of prohibition. But as my grandmother explained, it only meant he had a better relationship with White people and local police who were happy to overlook the law if it meant a good bottle of booze. And Walter McCall — my father’s namesake — made a mean bottle of moonshine.
Her mother, Julia McCall, and the rest of Pargellan’s sisters would take care of dinner and chores while her brothers worked with their father on the farm. A typical dinner included some variation of soup and whatever showed up in traps — squirrel and muskrat were a delicacy.
In short, life sucked, but Pargellan McCall is the last person to want your pity; she’d find it more insulting than the racism and struggle she experienced. 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.
No child left behind
If there’s one thing Dr. McCall prioritized while pursuing success, it was making sure that she brought other people along the way.
I witnessed this quality in her very own home, which I can’t remember ever being empty. She let college students stay in her place for a cheap fare, offered friends a home when they desperately needed one, and even adopted a few kids along the way.
It might seem strange to some, but it’s how Dr. McCall was raised. She grew up with less than nothing and still looked out for her siblings. It translated well into her older age, but she showcases this quality best when she struggles herself.
After graduating high school along with her class of nine students, Dr. McCall moved north to stay with family. She took a train straight to New York City; you can only imagine the awe of a farmer girl being introduced to what is still the center of the world, but Dr. McCall said it was one of the “most stressful moments of her life.”
She would only stay in the city for less than a day before moving to Hackensack, New Jersey. After a short while, she became the first Black manager of a local grocery chain and later met her husband, Eugene McCall Sr., a man who could surprisingly match her stubbornness. They had a family of four kids while adopting two along the way.
Communal roots and finding success
If you ever have the pleasure of meeting Dr. McCall, you will almost immediately feel like family — she won’t even let you leave her house without cooking something for you. (Don’t worry, it won’t be muskrat).
Having lived in Hackensack for well over 50 years, she’s dug her roots deeply. In addition to opening her house to students, she started a summer program for kids in the housing projects, served as a committee person for her local town council, and has financially supported many kids through school. She did it all while raising six kids and pursuing her doctorate.
My favorite story is when she spoke at a high school in Jersey City. “This was one of the worst schools in the area, and the students made it their mission to not let me speak,” she told me. “And as I looked at all these Brown faces of this inner city, I told them everyone outside those doors didn’t care about them, not me, not society, and certainly not the college across the street. And once I said that, they stopped talking so fast, and I was actually able to talk to them, and better help them.”
This story inspired me to ask her to come to speak at my college in North Jersey. I won’t lie; I was nervous as hell. Sure, I knew she’d kill it, but the spontaneity of the whole situation seemed to be a recipe for disaster.
As she tossed away her prepared notes, she began to lock in my classmates. And maybe it was in small part because of the situation’s strangeness — you don’t have 84-year-old grandmothers come into classes every day. Mostly, I think it was because of her character, her stories, and her lessons.
At 84, she still lights up any room.
Follow Momentum and sign up for our newsletter to read riveting stories about the Black history that shapes our lives and the latest developments in our fight against racism.