Albert Vann, Brooklyn civic and political icon dead at 87

Al Vann
Albert Vann, 1934-2022

Albert Vann, a bedrock of the Bedford-Stuyvesant community in which he represented – first, in the New York State Assembly and then, in the New York City Council passed away peacefully at the age of 87 on Thursday evening.

A lifelong Democrat, Vann represented Central Brooklyn in the 56th assembly district for over 25 years from 1974 to 2001. He transitioned to the city council in 2002 where he served the 36th Council District from 2002 to 2013.

“You can chronologize his achievements and accomplishments and what he’s meant to the community. The sentiment, though, is hard to capture and how people are now feeling this profound sense of loss in their community,” said former City Council member Robert E. Cornegy Jr., who was not only Vann’s immediate successor in the city council, but he says he owes his career in public service to Dr. Vann, who mentored him.

Rev. Jesse Jackson and VIDA Founder Former Assembly and City Council Member Al Vann.

Cornegy praised Dr. Vann for recognizing the importance of continuity in leadership and for fostering many of this generation’s prominent Black leaders.

“There are people who can impact and make change in communities but are less likely and less willing to share the opportunity to lead, and I’m a direct product of his willingness for someone else to lead or to take the reins or to exercise a sense of continuity in a community that desperately needs that,” said Cornegy.

New York Attorney General Letitia James, who started her political career as a staffer in Vann’s assembly office, was another person that Vann mentored and influenced.

“After a lifetime of leadership, mentorship, and principle, the honorable Al Vann passed away peacefully last night. While much more will be said about the life and legacy of Al Vann, it is safe to say that Brooklyn and all of New York lost a friend, a leader, and a legend. May he rest in peace and in power,” said James.

Vann was born on November 19, 1934 in Bed-Stuy where he grew up and attended the local public schools, played basketball and was otherwise active in the community. After he turned 18, Vann joined the United States Marine Corps. He rose to the rank of sergeant before leaving the military and earning his bachelor’s degree from Toledo University and two master’s degrees in education from Yeshiva University and Long Island University. Dr. Vann is a longtime member of the Alpha Phi Alpha Black fraternity.

Dr. Vann started out as a junior high public school teacher and made a name for himself fighting for school decentralization in neighboring Ocean-Hill Brownsville during the 1960s. He was the leader of the African-American Teachers Association.

His political roots originate from the Black Power movement and he positioned himself to take on the Democratic machine. He founded the influential political club, the Vanguard Independent Democratic Association (VIDA) and spearheaded two major court cases that helped to expand minority representation in New York government.

Dr. Vann’s valiant efforts to unite a broad-based coalition of Latino and Black voters during the 1985 mayoral election were unfortunately foiled, and afterwards he adjusted by taking a more moderate approach in governance.

He was also one of the founders of the City University of New York’s Medgar Evers College.

Many top elected officials took to social media or released statements mourning the loss of Vann.

“I got that call [of Vann’s death] this morning,” said Mayor Eric Adams. “He was a real mentor, he’s a giant, we’re going to miss him. He not only impacted the city, but some of the things he did impacted the entire country. We were notified early this morning that we lost him. He was a very special and dear friend, and we’re a better city because of him and we’re really going to miss him.”

“Deeply saddened by the passing of Al Vann. In his decades of service, he was a powerful champion for the Central Brooklyn community. I am forever grateful for his friendship. His legacy will endure for generations. My prayers are with his loved ones during this difficult time,” tweeted Governor Kathy Hochul.

State Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Westchester County) wrote on twitter that she was saddened to learn of Vann’s passing. “Al was a fierce leader who continuously raised the bar by always serving his community’s best interests,” said Stewart-Cousins.

“He exemplified our work in public service and set the standard for others to follow. We truly lost one of the best of us, but I know his legacy lives on. My thoughts are with his loved ones during this time,” she added.

U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn, Queens) called “the Honorable Al Vann, a giant in every sense of the word.”

“Al Vann led the Black empowerment movement in Central Brooklyn, founded institutions that transformed lives, passed groundbreaking legislation in Albany and inspired generations of elected officials to enter public service. Brooklyn loved Al Vann, and he loved Brooklyn,” said Jeffries.

“The loss of Mr. Vann is a void that we can never fill. But the countless people whose lives were touched by Al Vann, myself included, will forever be inspired to fight for change as a result of his tremendous life, legacy and his leadership,” he added.

The New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus released a statement on Dr. Vann’s passing and recognition of Dr. Vann’s service as Chair of the Caucus for three terms:

“We join the Vann family and Brooklyn community in mourning the loss of a dedicated and humble servant, former City Councilman and Assemblymember Al Vann. A bold and dynamic leader, Dr. Al Vann held with vision and compassion. From City Hall to State Capitol, he always ensured that he focused on the needs of Brooklyn,” the Caucus wrote.

“A founding member of Medgar Evers College, education policy always remained near and dear to his heart. His progressive vision for education still inspires that work of the Caucus today. We will continue to hold his memory dear and share his life’s achievements. May his family find peace during this period of grief.”

Former Mayor and congressional candidate Bill de Blasio wrote on twitter in response to Dr. Vann’s passing:

“Some people have the ability to change the world and to persevere despite every obstacle: Al Vann was one of those special individuals. He ALWAYS fought for equality, but never let the challenges embitter him. I remember his kind smile and the hope he created. RIP, brother.”

Vann is survived by his children and grandchildren. Funeral arrangements are pending.