Clement Price: Master Crafter of a Vital Public Square

Clement A. Price, who died November 5, 2014, following a stroke, compiled an extraordinary record of public humanities work that serves as inspiration for practitioners across the region and beyond.
Price addresses the 2013 annual Marion Thompson Wright Lecture. Photograph by Fred Stucker, Rutgers Newark.
Price addresses the 2013 annual Marion Thompson Wright Lecture.
(Photograph by Fred Stucker, courtesy Rutgers Newark.)

By Howard Gillette

Clement A. Price, who died November 5, 2014, following a stroke, compiled an extraordinary record of public humanities work that serves as inspiration for practitioners across the region and beyond.  Named a Board of Governors Distinguished Service Professor at Rutgers University in 2002, Price was that rare historian whose skills in communicating the complex and often contested elements of American history were equally manifest in public programming and institution building as in publications and teaching.

The first African American to receive a Ph.D. in history from Rutgers, Price joined the university’s Newark history faculty at an especially difficult time, marked by black student protests and continued turmoil in the aftermath of the Newark riots of 1967.  Over time, he garnered numerous teaching and university honors, cementing his national reputation with the publication in 2014 of Slave Culture: A Documentary Collection of the Slave Narratives from the Federal Writers’ Project, coedited with close friends and fellow African American public historians Spencer Crew and Lonnie Bunch.  In 2008, President-elect Barack Obama named Price as chair of his transition committee for the National Endowment for the Humanities and subsequently as vice-chair of the President’s Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.  It was the challenges of public historical interpretation closer to home, however, that particularly animated his career.

Over the course of his forty-six years at Rutgers Newark, Price served as chair or vice-chair of practically every cultural organization of importance in the region, including the New Jersey Council for the Arts, the policy-oriented Fund for New Jersey, the Newark Trust for Education, dedicated to improving the quality of public education in that city, and Save Ellis Island, a private organization dedicated to the preservation of the south (New Jersey) side of this National Park Service site.  Shortly before his death, the city of Newark had named Price its historian and chair of the committee charged with celebrating its 350th anniversary in 2016.

I first met Price shortly after I arrived at Rutgers in 1999 and embarked, with his help, on the effort to create what became the Mid-Atlantic Regional Center for the Humanities (MARCH).  Then, and in many instances thereafter, his advice was informed, instructive, and wise, qualities others repeatedly cited at the time of his death.

Throughout his career, Price tackled the difficult issues he first encountered as a young professor, not the least the devastating effect on Newark of the 1967 riots that left twenty-six dead and hundreds injured.  Disturbed by the lack of informed public dialogue about the riots’ causes and consequences, he organized a public program on the subject at the time of their thirtieth anniversary.  It took another ten years to secure funding for a major exhibit, but that finally happened in 2007 at the Historical Society of New Jersey, itself located in Newark.

In typical fashion, Price pressed his case for engaging the riots and their implications in the fullest possible way.  Mark Krosovic, Price’s younger Rutgers colleague and author of a forthcoming book on Newark in the 1960s, reports that Price considered his goal of addressing difficult issues like the riots part of a process of building “civic maturity.”  It was only after witnesses to such complicated events shared their contrasting memories that they could begin to live effectively with resulting discrepancies.  As Price put it himself in an essay drawn from his comments at a conference commemorating the 1968 riots in Baltimore, such proceedings could reveal “how, over time, personal and civic memories are both contextualized and marshaled into a call for reconciliation.” 1

Linda Epps, who directed the New Jersey Historical Society from 2005 until 2010, remembers Price’s insistence on including all points of view in the society’s exhibit on the riots, to which she attributes the exhibit’s success in attracting a broad and diverse audience.  Epps continued to develop programs around the exhibit for years as a means of building on community interest in the city’s recent history.  She balked initially when Price urged her to institute a series of walking tours through the Central Ward, where the conflict was concentrated.  Price was insistent, however, and the tours, which ran for four hours, proved enormously successful. Although then Newark Mayor Cory Booker initially wanted to demolish the 4th Precinct stationhouse, where the riots began, to make way for redevelopment, Price ultimately convinced him to save the building and mark it with a commemorative plaque.  His long-term hope was to convert it to a memorial to study, exhibit and interpret the long American tradition of civil disorder.

Always the engaged mentor, Price extended his reach widely.  One of the beneficiaries of that care was Sally Yerkovich, who counted herself fortunate to have been introduced to Price shortly after she was hired in 1997 to head the New Jersey Historical Society.  The society had recently made the transition from a building in a troubled part of the city to the elegant former Essex Club building in the heart of the downtown.  Her challenge was to connect the society, rooted for years in the memories of old families, many of whom had left the city during its racial transition in the 1960s, with contemporary residents.  Price proved an indispensable ally in forging connections with the black community, resulting in partnerships that culminated in the 2007 exhibit and related conference.

Price’s passion for public programming went well beyond the riots.  Together with the late Giles Wright, who built a record of scholarship on African American life in the state for the New Jersey Historical Commission, Price founded an annual public forum to address issues central to the celebration of Black History Month.  The Marion Thompson Wright lecture, named for the first professionally trained black woman historian in the United States and now in its thirty-fourth year, quickly became the most important event of its kind in the state, drawing up to one thousand people annually for its wide-ranging testimony to the richness of African American history.  Typically, the series attracted a broad public as well as students and faculty.  Price recently contributed $100,000 to endow the program.  Even as he began to prepare for others to take the lead in directing the event, it sparkled in February 2014, as icons of the 1964 Freedom Summer in Mississippi, Bob Moses and Diane Nash, brought a large audience to tears with their testimony of the bravery associated with that formative civil rights effort.

Clement Price in Lincoln Square, Newark, in the city’s Central Ward, where the civil disturbances of 1967 concentrated a nd where he lived for three decades, 1997. Photograph by Arthur Paxt on, courtesy Rutgers Newark.
Clement Price in Lincoln Square, Newark, in the city’s Central Ward, where the civil disturbances of 1967 concentrated and where he lived for three decades, 1997.  (Photograph by Arthur Paxton, courtesy Rutgers Newark.)

In 1997 Rutgers president Francis Lawrence, recognizing the importance of Price’s work in the city and state, designated funds to create the Institute on Ethnicity, Culture, and the Modern Experience  at the Newark campus under Price’s leadership.  The institute, Price believed, could through its own public programming keep alive year round the issues raised at the Wright lectures.  The arrival the following year of Steven Diner as dean of Arts and Sciences and subsequently chancellor of the Newark campus benefitted both men.  Determined to make the city a laboratory for new initiatives, Diner both relied on Price to build new bridges to the city and directed resources to the institute to help carry out associated initiatives.  His successor as chancellor, Nancy Cantor, accepted the position in large part because of Price’s argument that continuing to build ties between the university and the city of Newark represented an extraordinary opportunity for her leadership.  “He is a primary reason why so many of us at Rutgers University – Newark are here,” she acknowledged at the time of Price’s death.

As an academic, Price was a welcome mentor to a host of young scholars.  Mark Krasovic was but one of a number of post-doctoral scholars Price brought to Rutgers through grants from the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation.  According to Diner, it was Price’s interest that led to the formation of the PhD. program in American Studies at Rutgers’ Newark campus.  In contrast to the theoretical trends dominant in the field, Price insisted that the new degree program stress public work.  He was rewarded when a number of the first dissertations completed focused on Newark.

Among the educational priorities Price identified was teacher training.  Both through programs offered by the institute and in annual summer workshops conducted under the auspices of the New Jersey Council for the Humanities, he helped instill the importance of the black experience in American history in hundreds of teachers across the state.  Price proved an extraordinary instructor, according to former humanities council director Jane Rutcoff, engaging his audience with his own presentations and inviting newly minted PhDs to present guest lectures on their areas of expertise.  He also worked with the humanities council and the Gilder Lehrman Foundation to create, in 2007, the magnet American History High School in Newark.  Whenever possible, he enabled some of the students to attend public programs for which he was responsible.  Convinced that the proper education of Newark’s forty-eight thousand school children remained an indispensable ingredient in the city’s revitalization, he served as a member of the Newark Public School Advisory Board after the state took over the system in 1994.

Urban experience informed Price’s work but did not limit his interest in black history.  In 2008 he wrote eloquently about a tour through a series of historically black communities in South Jersey that he had arranged for a teacher’s institute.  “Few New Jersey residents are aware of this historical chapter or of the places built and sustained by blacks over the years,” he pointed out.  “Yet these places where blacks, like other groups of Americans, tried to live out the American Dream on their own terms remain important to our understanding of nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century black identity in the years before the civil rights movement.”

Similarly, as important as African American history was to him, Price’s efforts extended well beyond his academic specialty.  Price’s central role in preserving the medical outbuildings on Ellis Island that were close to collapse helped him further appreciate the parallel aspirations of immigrants and black families like his own when they migrated north.  Lisa Nitze, who organized Save Ellis Island on behalf of New Jersey governor Christie Whitman and worked closely with Price to get a preservation plan approved at state and national levels, recounts a telling story about Price.  At a critical early stage in their work, Save Ellis Island relied on work release prisoners to stabilize the twenty-nine buildings under the state’s jurisdiction by clearing debris and striping away years of vegetation.  It was Price’s idea to address the prisoners about the importance of their work.   According to Nitze, the audience was mesmerized and peppered Price with questions following his address.  For his part, Price came away from the work at Ellis Island strengthened in his conviction that no audience was unworthy of the difficult as well as inspirational lessons from the American past.

Befitting his passion for inclusiveness, Price’s last public appearance, where he was felled by a stroke, was to introduce I Shall Not Be Silent, a film about the late Rabbi Joachim Prinz, expelled from Hitler’s Germany in 1937, who became rabbi of Temple B’nai Abraham in Newark, President of the American Jewish Congress, and a leading figure in the civil rights movement, helping to organize the 1963 March on Washington for jobs and freedom.  Always committed to joining the full range of peoples seeking what he liked to call “a more perfect union,” Price, while looking to the past, could at the same time remind his audience of the importance of cementing alliances across racial and ethnic lines to move the cause of civil and human rights forward.

Price first and foremost conveyed his learning in personal terms.  So many people, in so many situations, valued his friendship as well as his commitments to public humanities, because he consistently offered his help.  Jane Rutcoff was among the many who testified to his personal devotion to advancing understanding in what he called “the public square.”  One of Rutcoff’s colleagues at the humanities council, Mary Rizzo, confirmed the way that happened with people who met Price.  Told by a teacher joining one of Price’s many tours of Newark how much she admired then mayor Cory Booker, Price reached for his cell phone and within minutes he had the two connected.

Working in a time fraught with dissent and difference, Price put his historical wisdom to work as a point of convergence.  As Rutcoff put it, “For Clem there were no spaces that separated, no boundaries that divided.  He sought, and invariably found our common ground.”  A high school superintendent whose schools Price had visited echoed that sentiment, telling Price’s Rutgers-Newark colleague James Goodman, “You hear people talk about reaching across the aisle. With Clem, there was no aisle.”

University-based humanities professionals who choose to take up work in the public square are necessarily bridge builders.  In making that effort, we can all take inspiration from a master of the craft, Clement Price.


On the set of the 2006 documentary Once and Future Newark produced by Rutgers-Newark and featuring Price lead ing a tour of places significant in the city’s social and cultura l history. Photograph Nora Luongo, courtesy Rutgers Newark.
On the set of the 2006 documentary, Once and Future Newark, produced by Rutgers-Newark and featuring Price leading a tour of places significant in the city’s social and cultural history.
( Photograph by Nora Luongo, courtesy Rutgers Newark.)

For additional tributes to Clement Price and the opportunity to add to them, visit the Rutgers-Newark tribute page.

For information on this year’s 35th Annual Marion Thompson Wright Lecture Series, which will feature Dr. Lonnie Bunch, inaugural Director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture, and honor Dr. Price, please click here.

A founding director of MARCH, Howard Gillette is Professor Emeritus of History at Rutgers-Camden and co-editor of the Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia.  He wishes to thank the following for contributing their memories of Clement Price: Spencer Crew, Steven Diner, Linda Epps, Mark Krasovic, Esther Mackintosh, Lisa Nitze, Mary Rizzo, Jane Rutkoff, Rob Snyder, and Sally Yerkovich.

1. Clement Alexander Price, “Epilogue: History and Memory: Why it Matters,” in Jessica I. Elfenbein, Thomas L. Hollowak, and Elizabeth M. Nix, eds., Baltimore ’68: Riots and Rebirth in an American City (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 2011), 264.