Albert Vann, who as a progressive New York State and New York City legislator for four decades helped shift the Black political center of gravity from Harlem to Brooklyn, where he challenged the white-dominated Democratic machine, died on Friday at his home in the Bedford-Stuyvesant section of the borough. He was 87.
His death was confirmed by his daughter Binta Vann-Joseph.
A mentor to, among others, Mayor Eric Adams of New York City and the New York State attorney general, Letitia James, Mr. Vann was so popular and powerful that in 1980, when he was struck from the Democratic primary ballot after a challenge to signatures on his qualifying petitions, he was re-elected to the State Assembly on the Liberal Party line alone.
“We all sit on his shoulders of leadership,” Mayor Adams said in a statement.
In the mid-1980s, Mr. Vann was instrumental in drives to register Black voters. Nonetheless, in 1985, he lost a primary election for Brooklyn borough president and, despite his attempts to fashion a Black and Hispanic coalition to unseat Mayor Edward I. Koch, Mr. Koch was renominated and re-elected that year.
But by 1988, thanks in part to Mr. Vann’s registration campaign, the Rev. Jesse L. Jackson ran first in the Democratic presidential primary in New York City. The next year, David N. Dinkins was elected the city’s first Black mayor.
Mr. Vann was a catalyst for economic development in his neighborhood through his Vannguard Urban Improvement Association. He was also a founder of Medgar Evers College of the City University of New York.
He began his career as an educator. He was a vocal advocate for community control of public schools in the late 1960s, when the predominantly white teachers’ union accused the local school board in Ocean Hill-Brownsville, Brooklyn, of violating contractual seniority rights by transferring 19 white teachers from the district.
Ocean Hill was one of three experimental districts in the city granted a modicum of local control over school administration and curriculum, but a fierce, vitriolic struggle over just how much control erupted between the local board and the largely white (and heavily Jewish) United Federation of Teachers. The conflict resulted in months of strikes and boycotts and became a major source of tension between the city’s Black and Jewish communities.
Mr. Vann helped organize the African American Teachers Association, which supported the local board and whose newsletters carried statements accusing white union members of “exploiting” Black students and parents — a sentiment that Mr. Vann’s allies generally dismissed as parochialism rather than outright antisemitism.
The crisis was defused with a compromise: The Legislature decentralized the school system, granting community boards like the one in Ocean Hill-Brownsville narrowly defined discretion, and the white teachers who had been transferred from the district were reinstated. Dissatisfied with the deal, Mr. Vann resigned from the school system and eventually turned to electoral politics.
Mr. Vann, a persistent critic of police brutality, was often perceived early on as a radical. But as an elected official he grew more dignified, if no less passionate.
“He always fought for equality, but never let the challenges embitter him,” former Mayor Bill de Blasio said on Twitter.
In an interview with New York magazine in 1983, Mr. Vann said, “I don’t consider myself an angry young man other than the fact that I’ve read my history.” He added: “I know the injustice and inhumanity we’ve had to endure. Obviously, there’s an anger when you know that story, and everyone should.”
Albert Vann was born on Nov. 19, 1934, in Brooklyn to parents who had recently moved to New York from North Carolina in the Great Migration, and who separated soon after. His father was Benjamin Palmer. His mother, Nina (McGlone) Vann, a former sharecropper, worked as a housemaid and in a factory before opening a grocery store.
After graduating from Franklin K. Lane High School, Mr. Vann served in the Marines from 1952 to 1955 and won a basketball scholarship to the University of Toledo, where he graduated with a degree in business in 1959.
Returning to New York and uninspired by a department store management training program, he earned a master’s degree in education from Yeshiva University. (He later earned another master’s, in guidance counseling, from Long Island University.)
He was a public-school teacher, guidance counselor and assistant principal and ran a college placement program at Long Island University before being elected to the State Assembly as an insurgent in 1974.
As chairman of the Assembly’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, he oversaw lawsuits that led to more minority representation in the City Council, the State Legislature and New York’s Congressional delegation.
After Annette Robinson was barred by term limits from seeking re-election to the City Council, she and Mr. Vann switched seats; she was elected to the Assembly and he served in the Council, from 2002 through 2013.
He was also an instructor at Vassar College’s Urban Center for Black Studies.
In addition to his daughter Binta, Mr. Vann is survived by his wife, Mildred (Cooke) Vann, whom he married in 1954; their three other children, Fola Vann, Albert Scott Vann and Shannon Clarke-Anderson; eight grandchildren; one great-grandson; and his brother, Charles Vann.