The Colgate Scene
May 2003

Local hero
ADA Carl Boykin '83 stands up for his neighborhood

When he became the first African American prosecutor in the history of Oneida County, N.Y. in 1996, Carl Boykin '83 returned to the neighborhood where he grew up. [Photo by Timothy D. Sofranko]

From the front porch of his home, Carl Boykin '83 can see where his past, present and future intersect.

To one side is the house where Boykin grew up. Just up the block, there is St. Paul's Baptist Church, where he has worshiped since he was a child, and where he remains an active member. A few blocks farther away is the former Utica Free Academy, where Boykin was a football and track star during the late 1970s. And, all around him is a neighborhood that has seen better days and will again, if Boykin has anything to do with it.

"I remember what the neighborhood used to be like, and the way it is now bothers me," said Boykin. "It bothers me that it's been ravaged by drugs. I chose to live there because it's still home."

Cornhill, the place Boykin calls home, was once one of Utica's most vibrant working-class neighborhoods. But as manufacturing jobs moved away or simply evaporated from central New York, Cornhill began a steady decline marked by the increased poverty, deteriorating property values and increased crime connected to the illegal drug trade. It's a place where as many as 60 percent of the families are headed by single women and nearly a quarter of the adults are unemployed. As an assistant district attorney and Cornhill resident, Boykin has a professional as well as a personal stake in attacking what ails his neighborhood.

"In a fairly small community like Utica or Rome, the removal of just a few bad apples can really impact an area," said Boykin. "Just down the street from me a house that was home to at least two or three felons was recently torn down. They're gone now and it's changed the way daily life is right in my own neighborhood."

For Boykin, turning things around in Cornhill encompasses more than getting felons off the streets. To start, when Boykin returned to Utica to join the Oneida County District Attorney's Office in 1996, he purchased and renovated a house next to the home where his parents raised him and his four sisters and two brothers. In addition to raising two daughters with his wife, Terri, Boykin devotes time and energy to volunteer work, particularly for JCTOD Outreach, a local community organization, and at St. Paul's. Improving the quality of life in his neighborhood also meant stepping forward to talk with teenagers about abstaining from sex until they reach adulthood.

"I gave a speech two years ago on abstinence with [former NBA player] A.C. Green," said Boykin. "Before that, I had given a speech to some kids at a youth facility here in Utica and someone from the New York State Alliance for Abstinence Education saw an article that covered what I'd said and asked me to get involved. It's a tough topic to talk about, but I felt it was important that kids heard about it from someone who lived that way as a teenager, instead of it sounding like some pie-in-the-sky thing that everyone says is so unrealistic.

"You can imagine what people would say to a boy at sixteen who admitted to abstaining," he added.

In Boykin's opinion, the consequences of teen pregnancy are manifested not only in the number of single-parent families in Cornhill, but also in the criminal justice system.

"A few months ago, I spoke to a group of girls at JCTOD, not just about abstinence but about dealing with males in general," he said. "These were girls from ages nine through fifteen, and when girls that young get pregnant it really impacts the community to the extent that you've got these little girls who don't have a clue about what they're doing raising these young boys. Too often, it isn't very long before we [in the district attorney's office] see a lot of them."

Because Boykin is the first African American prosecutor in Oneida County's history, his appointment was greeted with understandable pride within the local African American community, but it also put him on a collision course with what had happened to that community during the years he was away. Boykin has had to prosecute individuals he knew when he was growing up. He confesses that these circumstances caused him difficulty, but he has no regrets.

"I come from the community. I'm no better than anybody else," said Boykin. "I don't view my accomplishments as something that sets me apart from anybody. I was blessed to be able to come home and do the things I've done. I make no excuses and apologize to no one for that."

Critical and reflective
It is that combination of humility and determination that made Boykin a favorite player of former Colgate football head coach Fred Dunlap '50.

"My assistants had told me that not only was Carl a good football player, but he was also pragmatic," Dunlap said.

As he did with all new recruits, Dunlap pressed Boykin to tell him something about himself, what he thought about playing defensive back for Colgate, and what position he played in high school. It was the answer to the latter question that alerted Dunlap to the young man's tenacity.

"Carl was very shy and it was difficult to get him to answer," said Dunlap. "I asked, `What did you play in high school?' He said, `Linebacker.' I was really surprised. At that time I don't think he weighed more than 140 pounds."

Dunlap and his staff soon learned that despite his size, Boykin was a fast, fearless and hard-hitting player. Although Boykin struggled at cornerback, he excelled at free safety, where he used his speed (he still holds Colgate records in the 55- and 110-meter hurdles) and hitting ability to great effect, Dunlap said.

"As small as I am, I couldn't wait for someone to hit me first," Boykin laughed. "Hitting hard was the only way I could survive out there."

Dunlap last saw Boykin a few years ago and said that his former player was still somewhat shy but was "very poised."

"Carl was a great player to have on the team. He was conscientious and concerned about his teammates and everybody else," said Dunlap. "I'm very proud of him. He's just a wonderful man."

After graduating from Colgate and earning a masters degree from the University of Buffalo, Boykin managed to secure a tryout with the Buffalo Bills even though at his Colgate playing weight of 148 pounds he was at least 40 to 50 pounds lighter than the average NFL defensive back. When that didn't work out as he hoped, Boykin entered Cornell Law School, graduating in 1988. After working as a legal aid attorney and then as a law clerk to several judges, Boykin accepted the offer to join the Oneida County District Attorney's Office, where he is chief of the appeals bureau.

But as important as Boykin's work as a prosecutor is to the community at large, there are those who believe what he does, and the example he sets, back in Cornhill is just as significant.

"Carl is truly a reflective and critical thinker," said the Rev. Dr. Johnny Wilson Jr., former pastor of St. Paul's. "Carl doesn't open his mouth just to be heard. When he speaks, it's usually to say something important."

Because Boykin chooses to live his life with devotion to his family, church and neighborhood, Wilson continued, "his presence sets an example to the young people -- especially the young men in this church -- that need a role model."

"This is a young man," Wilson said, "who has given hope to young people who sorely need it."

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