Rutgers' Clement Price: a lesson in gentle enlightenment (Di Ionno)

By Mark Di Ionno | The Star-Ledger
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on November 07, 2014

Honorary degree recipient Clement Price participates in Essex County College's commencement in Newark.

 

It was 8 a.m. on the morning of Nov. 4, 2008, when I called Clement Price.

“Clem, guess where I am? Lawnside, New Jersey.”

“Then you’re in the right place, my friend.”

Clem was not the first person I talked to that morning. The first was Camilla Arthur Farmer, the 82-year-old matriarch of an original Lawnside family who, like Clem, was determined to be among the first to cast their vote for Barack Obama.

“To live to be my age, and to see a black man run for president of the United States …,” Farmer said with tears gathering in her eyes. “To vote today was an honor.”

She spoke with the ghost of a Southern accent, because her family had been slaves who resettled on a large piece of Camden County farmland bought by abolitionists and called Free Haven. The name was eventually changed to Lawnside and, in 1926, it became the only black-governed town north of the Mason-Dixon Line.

I knew all this because of Clem Price, who died too young at 69 on Wednesday after suffering a stroke.

You have read in other places about his long list of accomplishments, and his own place in the Rutgers, New Jersey and national spectrum.

This column is about a friend. A storyteller. A generous giver of perspective. He introduced journalists like me to worlds we knew little about in the gentlest ways, never lecturing or pontificating, but simply helping us satisfy our intellectual curiosity. To be blunt, he knew how to get white guys interested in black history. He knew how to find common ground. And in doing so, became a trusted source and valued friend.

“Clem was an educator, first and foremost. Sometimes, you might not have even realized you were his student until later, because he wasn’t pedantic or overbearing about it,” said Brad Parks, a former Star-Ledger reporter who is now a novelist.

Parks did a well-received, four-part series for the 40th anniversary of the Newark riots in 2007, and Clem was his tour guide.

“In the four months of reporting I did, Clem was my first phone call,” Parks said. “That series was as much Clem’s as it was mine. I probably only quoted him a few times in the whole thing, but he was the voice in my ear with every word I wrote.”

That “voice in the ear” was one of enlightenment. It was a voice that urged people to recognize black history as akin to the upward struggle of the American middle class of any color. He called it the “Grand Narrative,” and described it as “encompassing all we — as Americans — can agree on.”

That was why he loved Rutgers-Newark, his academic home for parts of five decades.

"Rutgers-Newark, historically, is a `strivers row' institution of higher learning," he said at the school’s 100th anniversary gala in 2008. "It was always an ethnic campus. It was a campus born out of struggle."

After I learned of Clem’s death Wednesday night, I went into The Star-Ledger archives and looked at all the stories, such as my visit to Lawnside, that he pushed in my direction.

With sincere enthusiasm and a great sense of story, Clem urged me to do a profile of Lonnie Bunch, the son of teachers, who grew up among Italian-American Four Season’s lovers in Belleville only to become the inaugural director of the Smithsonian’s National African-American museum.

He told me about a documentary on the Bordentown School (for “Colored Youth”), called the Tuskegee of the North, and introduced me to some living graduates.

"They wanted to carve out a place of their own," Price said. “Learn a trade. Work hard. Remain frugal. Be patient."

In a place where black academics could thrive, Price said, Bordentown created, "a credible group of people ready for the Civil Rights movement."

He let me know when a doorway from James Baxter Terrace — torn down as a drug- and crime-invested housing project — was being preserved for Bunch’s museum because the place had historic relevance as post-war affordable housing for Newark’s Westinghouse workers.

"This is part of the African-American urban narrative, the good and the bad," he said. "It was a wonderful place to live and raise a family for many years, probably through the 1970s. But, as everyone in Newark knows, the facility became challenged with the ills often associated with America's poor, inner-city black communities."

Clem did not shy away from discussing those ills and he was no apologist. In fact, his very American, middle-class values were as central to his personal historic “narrative” as was his race.

"There is a creeping crudeness that has taken over our black community that disturbs us all," he said after Obama’s election. “I understand the word `nigger' may not mean to the younger generation what it means to my generation, but it should. They should understand their history."

Understanding. Perspective. Enlightenment. These were the hallmarks of Clem’s loving intellectual hand. Friendship was the natural next step.

What I will remember most about Clem is his warmth and closeness. Hand shakes that became hugs. How he put both hands on my shoulders when we spoke. Conversations with Clem were always honest and intimate.

And he was profusely generous when he spoke about the work of others. There wasn’t a petty bone in the man’s body. As a true scholar, he even went as far as letting journalists into that rarified club, allowing that “newspaper stories are the first page of history.” That always made me feel good, as if my daily, disposable product had lasting value.

As I went through the archive, I read many of Clem’s ebullient quotes about other historians.

On the late Charles Cumming — a transplanted Southerner and keeper of the archive at the Newark Public Library – who, with the late author John Cunningham and Clem, formed a triumvirate of Newark historians:

"That a man of Charles's background could become ‘Mr. Newark’ is among the most fascinating stories I know of in urban America. Charles raised the art of hyperbole on matters relating to Newark to a higher and more persuasive level."

On Bunch:

"For Lonnie to have the national stature and adoration of the profession that he enjoys means at least symbolically that we as Americans are ready to deal with the difficult and rich experience of African-American people on American soil."

On Cunningham:

“Far more than other historians, John made New Jersey's complicated history accessible to a cross-section of teachers, students, history buffs and scholars. He was one of the civic giants of New Jersey public life."

Every one of those statements is true of Clem.

I wish he were here to give me one of those eloquent quotes, which he generously ladled on others, about himself.

Because I am now at a loss for words.

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