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A lifelong governmental and political figure, David Paterson was the first African American governor of New York state.
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In 1985, David Paterson won his campaign for State Senate and was elected to represent Harlem at the age of 31, becoming the youngest state senator in New York's history. In 2008, New York governor Eliot Spitzer became embroiled in a national prostitution scandal and resigned, and Paterson filled the former governor's position, making him New York's first African-American governor.
"People are fond of saying of people with disabilities that they are just like everybody else, but that's just something to say to make them feel better. When you have a disability you are not like everyone else. You are uniquely defined by a lack of vision."
Born David Alexander Patterson on May 20, 1954, in Brooklyn, New York, to labor law attorney Basil Paterson and homemaker, Portia Paterson. Paterson's family is steeped in political history—Basil was the first African-American Secretary of State in New York and the first African-American Vice-Chair of the National Democratic Party. His paternal grandmother also worked for a brief time in the political arena: She was a secretary to civil rights activist, Marcus Garvey.
Shortly after birth, David contracted a serious ear infection that spread to his optic nerve. The resulting damage left the newborn with no sight in his left eye and limited vision in his right. His loss of sight became an impediment to his early education in the New York City public school system, which insisted Paterson needed to be placed in special classes. "People are fond of saying of people with disabilities that they are just like everybody else," Paterson told the Associated Press in 2002. "But that's just something to say to make them feel better. When you have a disability you are not like everyone else. You are uniquely defined by a lack of vision."
To give Paterson a mainstream schooling experience, his family bought a home in the Long Island suburb of Hempstead. He was the first disabled student in the Hempstead public schools, but he was also a conscientious one. He graduated from Hempstead High School in 1971, finishing a year ahead of his peers.
The next year, Paterson entered Columbia University as a top student, and made the dean's list his first semester. Yet just as quickly as Paterson hit the road to success, his studies started to suffer. In just one semester, he went from the dean's list to flunking out. He temporarily left his studies on advice from a professor, who told him he needed to take some time to learn how to stand up for himself.
"I had no defenses when things went wrong," Paterson recalls. "[My professor] told me to go out and get a job and fight for that job, then come back and finish college. So I did that, getting a job at a credit union. It was a painful time for me. I'd graduated high school younger than everyone and was legally blind, yet I figured I'd be out of college at age 20. But it all came crashing down."
He returned to Columbia to finish his undergraduate degree, graduating with a bachelor's in History in 1977. He then went on to law school at Hofstra University, completing his Juris Doctor in 1982. Paterson then went straight from law school to the Queens district attorney's office, working as an assistant district attorney.
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After the Civil War, many of the country's best and brightest black advocates, artists, entrepreneurs and intellectuals moved to the New York City neighborhood of Harlem. Thanks largely to the efforts of these residents, Harlem became both the cradle of a cultural revolution and the heart of the civil rights movement. Meet some of the many people who gave—and continue to give—this neighborhood a voice, simply by calling it home.
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