Tribute: Clement Price Leaves His Mark on Newark and Beyond

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and Rutgers Chancellor Nancy Cantor honor the late historian of the city and its people

Credit: Dennis Kleiman
Dr. Clement Price, highly-regarded Rutgers University historian and passionate booster of Newark, died Nov. 5 at age 69.
Funeral services were held on Friday for Clement Price, the esteemed Rutgers University historian and booster of Newark who died two weeks ago at age 69. The ceremony, held at Bethany Baptist Church in Newark, was attended by more than 300 people, including former Gov. Christie Whitman, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, and scores of friends and colleagues from across Newark and the nation.

Price was remembered as not only a powerful and insightful chronicler of African-American history in Newark and beyond, but also a charming and compassionate friend to the city and its inhabitants.

The following are two of the eulogies delivered Friday, one from Newark Mayor Ras Baraka and the other from Rutgers-Newark Chancellor Nancy Cantor.

Newark Mayor Ras J. Baraka

When I became Mayor, Clement Price congratulated me and informed me that Newark was on the eve of its 350-year anniversary — all in the same sentence. I guess this was his way of saying the campaign is over and we have work to do.

A work and a place that he has been consistently committed to for most of his — Newark– showing the world our great and complicated city as he would describe it. One of America’s oldest metropolises, that wears the scars of western democracy all over her face. Tragically beautiful, complex, and proud. With a long and rich history.

And if you stop on our streets for a second and listen, you could hear his voice beckoning you, a distinct, calming voice over the crowds of discontent, through the cracks in the walls that separate humanity, that foreboding space that keeps us apart.

If you listen, you can hear Clem’s voice beckoning — forcing all of us to deal with each other, to see each other in one collective narrative — our story — our Newark. We are a long way from 350 years ago today and an even longer way from 1967, though things seem eerily familiar these days. And some summers the air is just as thick.

When Clem came to Newark, you could still feel the heat from the cinders of burning buildings, a time of pain and excitement, of hurt and promise like the birth of a baby, a transformation of life. And in the middle of this, he became Dr. Clement Price, one of our foremost historians, an intellectual in the public space. He told our story with eloquence and passion yet “Kind of Blue” with a Miles Davis tone.

He was an academic but never hid behind the walls of academia. His research was alive and moving, like Dubois’ study of the Philadelphia Negro, it was meant to be useful, instructive but useful.

Dr. Price had the ability to be in rooms many Newarkers couldn’t get to be in. He was in conversations that many were invited to, which made his discourse that much more important and relevant. He had the opportunity to say things when they mattered. And he had the uncanny ability to make what mattered to him matter to others.

He told of Newark a great and intriguing city with an incredible and unyielding future, not a Brick city or a city pigeonholed into the limited imagination of prejudice. A false narrative used to keep our city behind a boulder on a long steep hill.

I remember talking to Dr. Price many times about Jackson’s book “Crabgrass Frontier” and the decline of America’s cities.

Here in Newark after World War II, there was a second migration of poor and working-class African-Americans from the South and later Latinos from the Caribbean, looking for work and housing. The Federal government built more high-rise projects per capita in Newark than any other city in America and concentrated poverty, while subsidizing the population of suburbs and redlining the entire city.

That discouraged investment and growth here, while making it easier for folks to flee by building Interstate 78 and 280 and creating other opportunities to live out of the city but not in it. They made housing available at lower prices than the city.

This was more than a decade before the Newark Rebellion. So rioting people didn’t chase people away. They were leaving long before that. And the policies that created fear and poverty in Newark had to be transformed to ones that created brotherhood and development, investment and growth.

We had to focus on our arts, our connections to one another, and on our rich and collective history. The future of our city depends on it.

I learned this from Dr Clement Price!

When Stewart’s closed, then John’s Place, and Je’s restaurant a little later, we knew things were getting close. It was a premonition. We lost my father, then Juliet Grant, and now Dr Clement Alexander Price.

We are deeply sorrowful, yet beaming with pride for the life he lived. His life led us to this crossroad and it begs the question: what do we do now?! And I feel compelled, as should you, to answer it.

And as this entire city heaps love on Mary Sue and the rest of Clement’s family, we will prepare ourselves to push this city in to a place Dr. Price worked for it to become.

And if we don’t do anything else we will make sure that Newark has the best 350-year anniversary that this nation has ever seen, that it tells the complete story of our complex city.

And at the heart of it, at its core, you will hear Clement’s voice loud and clear.

Nancy Cantor, Chancellor, Rutgers University – Newark

There are too many things to say about Clem; so many decades of influence over so many students, colleagues, friends, so at the risk of being presumptuous, which Clement Alexander Price didn’t even know how to be, despite the regal sound of his name, I offer some personal and professional stories, as Clem mixed those so naturally, in the hope of resonating with others. Clem was an enthusiast of life, a spreader of grace, and a narrator of hope. Here’s a word on each:

+ Enthusiast of life — Clem loved life, and he lived it at full speed, at once joyful and yet determined to make the world better — which he did. To him, all of life was worthy of analysis and reflection at every turn. Here are his reflections sent at 12:22 a.m. — did he ever sleep? –after a party:

“Dear Nancy and Steve,

The only thing missing from your gathering on Wednesday was a good bottle of bourbon and, alas, Smokey Robinson. He would have easily kept up with the cast of characters, last night’s Miracles, Temptations… Four Tops, and the larger constellation of black artists who helped the American Republic to learn how to dance and think about race in a different way. As I witnessed the joy of our last night, it struck me that Berry Gordy may have been nearly as important as Dr. King in turning the nation toward a future that now enables our work and our fellowship. That said, it was a wonderful evening, a memorable one. I may soon endow my lap, given all the women who sat on it last night …”

+ Spreader of grace – He spread such grace and generosity, but with purpose — from the tone of his voice — Oh, Nancy, Nancy,”– to the way he signed an email — “Hugs, Clem,” — or “More later, Clem,”at which point you knew you were in trouble. From his willing acceptance of every request –You agreed to do WHAT??” we’d say — to his way of lightening the load with humor, all the while making clear our collective responsibilities — “You know, Nancy, the best business in Newark is plaque-making,” — as we prepared to go off to our third gala in three nights; but he loved those galas and the civic ritual that binds us all in and of Newark.

+ Narrator of hope — As we all know, Clem was a storyteller, a visionary of history and of life in its regular but-oh-so telling moments. I treasure his emails “from the sticks,” as he referred to his and Mary Sue’s place in Pennsylvania. And in his stories, he both captured and challenged the narrative of race in America—from Rabbi Prinz’s speech at the March on Washington, which he proudly pronounced as the second best that day, to drinking with two white guys in a bar in Scranton. Here’s an email he sent describing that scenario:

“Dear Nancy,

So, I am having a nightcap at the bar in the lovely, old train station in Scranton, now a Radisson Hotel, readying myself for my lecture tomorrow … To my left, there are two big, burly white guys. They ask if I am a professor…We chat about what professors do and they tell me they are bus drivers for Syracuse University sports teams…

On sharing stories about you, Nancy dear, those two guys and I had one of those quintessentially American encounters, when the power of memory, connections, and fellowship really matter and trumps all the other stuff. Put another way, you were very much present at a bar in Scranton tonight.

See you Sunday night…

Love, Clem”

If only that was a quintessentially American encounter—one that we could be sure would be repeated again, many times and in many places, without Clement Alexander Price to make it happen; if only I and we could see him Sunday night again — even at one of those beloved Newark galas — if only, if only…

Let’s make sure we keep on hoping and working tirelessly the way he did — for Newark, for Rutgers-Newark, for the next generation who so believed in him — and whom he will hold accountable for justice and goodness to prevail. Bless you, dear Clem, one of a kind — but we will try to keep on keeping on… if only because I for one know you are looking down and watching with those twinkling eyes … and I could never turn from your gaze.