Hugh Price: Champion of Freedom

Hugh Price: Champion of Freedom

Hugh participating in march in Columbia, SC, in 2000 to protest the Confederate flag flying at the State Capitol. Photo from National Urban League (NUL) Archives.

“Always know what you are capable of.”

The Civil Rights Movement would not have been a success without the sacrifices of the era’s young people. After college, many of the “talented tenth” took their skills to help directly with the movement. This meant helping people register to vote, offering legal counsel, and organizing protests. Hugh Price is one of those figures. When he graduated from Amherst College, Hugh was a marshal at the March on Washington in 1963. After seeing the huge crowd, he was inspired to give up personal aspirations and live his life for the betterment of his community. He would eventually become the president and CEO of the National Urban League. Throughout his career, Hugh has championed civil rights and has influenced a young and courageous generation of activists. Hugh Price discussed with us in great detail his life story of unflinching service and exceptional sacrifice.

Where are you from and what was it like growing up there?

I was born and raised in Washington, D.C. My home town was a rigidly segregated town when I was a child. It was below the Mason-Dixon Line. All aspects of life were segregated—schools, movie theaters, restaurants, you name it. The fabled U Street was “our” downtown. You could buy clothes at the big department stores in the white people’s downtown, but you had to try them on elsewhere.

I grew up in the orbit of Howard University. Both of my parents were graduates of Howard. Virtually, all of their friends were Howard graduates who had stayed in D.C. The ethos of Howard permeated our community. That ethos led to progress and success. We were prepared to go through the barriers of racism and segregation and not let those barriers mess with our heads and affect us.

Many of our neighbors were quite illustrious people in the annals of the African-American experience. Charles Hamilton Houston was a neighbor and friend of my parents. He was the architect of the successful school desegregation lawsuits. Also, on our street was the famous sports reporter, Arthur “Art” Carter, as well as the Hall of Fame sports reporter, Sam Lacy, who crusaded for the integration of Major League Baseball. Right up the street from our home on New Hampshire was Todd Duncan, the opera singer who performed as Porgy in Porgy and Bess. These were my parents’ contemporaries. Culturally, it was a very rich neighborhood.

Hugh with his mother, Charlotte Price. 

Who was your biggest inspiration growing up?

The most proximate people you can imagine—my father, my mother, and my brother.

My father was a very self-reliant person. His mother was widowed when my Dad was three. She was trained as a school teacher, but she couldn’t get a job in D.C. She worked as a maid for wealthy white women. As a child, my father lived with his first cousin. Dad was a pioneer when he became the second African-American physician to be certified by the American Board of Urology, the major certifying institution. He became one of the nation’s foremost authorities on venereal diseases. Ironically, the first African-American to be certified was my father’s first cousin.

His stepfather did not particularly believe in higher education. In order to pay his way through Howard Medical School, my dad would go to classes during the day and then he ran elevators in the apartment buildings of wealthy white people at night. He would study in between the runs of the elevator.

I learned the virtues of service and hard work from my dad. He had his own medical practice. He taught part-time at Howard Medical School as did many other graduates who stayed in the Washington, D.C. area. He also worked in the free clinics at Freedmen’s Hospital. My dad would often be out of the house and at the operating table at 7 a.m. and wouldn’t get back home until 9 p.m. Through all of this, he published articles about some of the major cases he had. I don’t know where he found the time and energy.

He was a great provider. Even though he didn’t make a lot of money, there were never conversations about finances. His patients were the working class. Sometimes he got paid with Smithfield hams at Christmas time.

He taught me the centrality of family. If there was ever a ceremony at school where my brother or I got some kind of award, my dad was always in the audience. Even though he was a reserved man, he had this unrestrained cheer when we walked across the stage. We always knew where he was because we could hear him.

He never worried about celebrity or social life. My parents were very much peas in a pod. He loved nature. He became a disciple of Henry David Thoreau. He collected first editions of his work. He and my mother visited Walden Pond. Nature was an outlet from all of the stress of his medical practice. He never aspired to be anybody other than himself. The whole idea of knowing who you are, being comfortable in your own skin and not worrying about what other people think about you, had a huge impression on me.

My mother was also an enormous influence on my life. My father was always focused on the medical practice. He was a traditionalist. He didn’t believe wives should work so my mother “got even” by volunteering 40-50 hours a week. She was very active with the League of Women Voters and campaigned to bring voting rights to Washington, D.C. Along with a number of her friends, including many in the neighborhood, she was very active in supporting the desegregation of Washington schools. I learned by looking at the footnotes of Charles Hamilton Houston’s biography, that my parents were part of the group of neighbors and friends who gave financial support for the lawsuits Houston filed to bring down school segregation. She was determined to live in as much of an integrated world as she possibly could. For example, we were members of the All Souls Unitarian Church in Washington where people of all walks of life were welcomed.

I can’t remember who organized it, but diplomats from all over the world would visit Washington for conferences and my parents would have them over for dinner. I would never forget sitting in our house with folks from Japan and Sweden. We learned from them and they learned from us.

My brother, who is five years older than me, is very smart and ambitious. However, he struggled in school because of his dyslexia. As an undergraduate, he loved socializing. He would be on probation one semester and the Dean’s List the next. It didn’t matter, he always wanted to party.

It took him about seven years to get through college but when he graduated from Howard, he wanted to go to medical school. Some folks doubted whether or not he could handle it—including my father. All of the reading that goes with the early years of medical school is really tough, but he powered through it. When he got to the more practical, second two years of medical school, he lifted up and went into orbit academically. By the time he graduated, he had Georgetown University Hospital and Medical School after him to do his follow up studies and even become a faculty member.

My brother was always encouraging me. If there was ever a major challenge and I was deciding whether or not to make a run at it, he would always tell me to just go for it. The only thing they can say is “no.”

Hugh delivering a speech as president of NUL. Photo from NUL Archives.

What was the single most important lesson that helped shape you as you began the early phases of your career?

I was most impacted by my mother’s work in the civil and voting rights space. She was active and was determined to do what she could do to help promote integration, school quality, and voting rights. She even testified before a congressional committee for higher minimum wages. She and other patriots were always trying to advance the rights of our people.

I observed this when I was little. It carried all the way to my teenage years. The summer that I got out of college in 1963, I participated as a marshal in the March on Washington. Both my mother and my future mother-in-law were at the march. There was a point of crystallization for me when I was in the midst of the crowd of over 250,000 people. I wanted to be of service and help black people get ahead and surmount the obstacles we faced in a segregated world.

Take us through the journey of your career.

I was fortunate to do well in school. Therefore, I was blessed to get into a terrific college, Amherst College, and into a terrific law school, Yale. I was around brilliant classmates and professors. I will not say that I was a scholar. I wanted to take the courses and do well. I wanted to play intercollegiate sports. I belonged to a fraternity. I met the coed who would become my wife of over 55 years. I tried to live college life to the fullest without flunking out.

Because I was able to get a job at the VA as a typist, I earned a pretty decent income during the summers. From 1959-1963, tuition plus room and board at Amherst College cost about $2500 a year. I earned $1200 a summer as a clerk typist. I made $100 a week. I was able to buy a brand-new Volkswagen Beetle for $1600 cash with my summer earnings. My parents were, fortunately, paying the cost of college. After having my car on campus my sophomore year, my grades slumped, and I got a letter from my father. In those days, your grades went home with the tuition bill. We were not liberated adults, yet. The letter read: “Dear Son, I just got your grades. I see you are having a good time. We have a two-car garage. One of the bays is empty. Love Dad.” In other words, you may think you own that car but if the grades don’t come up the next marking period, the car is coming home. I saluted and got myself straight. My grades went up. I was keeping my car.

At Yale, I encountered not only brilliant professors, but also people like Marian Wright Edelman and Eleanor Holmes Norton. They were two or three years ahead of me. They were already legends. They went down South to help with voter registration and participate in the greater movement. This reinforced the impact of the March on Washington on me.

The 60s was a time when young folks who really wanted to be of service were going straight into the Civil Rights Movement. Many of them placed their lives on the line in the Deep South. I decided I wanted to be active up North and got deeply involved in the Anti-Poverty Movement. After law school I became a legal services lawyer in New Haven, representing poor people.

I came along in a time when people would take chances on folks who were bright, hard-working, and curious. They didn’t necessarily require that you possess years of deep, specific experience in the field. They wanted to see what you were capable of. In 1967, New Haven had riots. The Black Coalition of New Haven was created to try to put the pieces of the city back together. I was hired as the first executive director of the Black Coalition at the age of 26.

Hugh mingling with the children at the “Doing the Right Thing” rally organized by the Los Angeles Urban League as part of the National Urban League’s Campaign for African-American Achievement. Photo provided by the LA Urban League.

There I was in the middle of it all. I was their face and their ultimate advocate. I served on the defacto staff as director of the Hill-Dwight Citizens Commission on Police Community Relations. We dealt with groups like the Panthers. We dealt with the fact our organization was infiltrated by the police and we were wiretapped. It was an incredible professional growth experience.

In 1977, I got a call from out of the blue by a man named Max Frankel who was the editor of the editorial page at the New York Times. He told me that I was under consideration for appointment to the Editorial Board of the New York Times. And I said, “What? Is this a group you get together for lunch a couple of times a year to say how you are doing?” He said, “No, you write editorials for the New York Times.” I said, “Well I haven’t written for anybody to speak of, so why me?” He said, “Well, you’ve written, but just not for newspapers. We would like for you to come down for an interview.” I went down for the interview and wrote several sample editorials. They hired me. I did that for about five and a half years.

I then was approached by the head of the public television station in New York City, WNET Thirteen. They were looking for somebody to become the senior vice-president in charge of the Metropolitan division that ran the program schedule and on-air fundraising. I didn’t know anything about television. In fact, in that pre-cable era, the signal was so weak outside the city, it was hard to watch. I was appointed head of the Metropolitan division and then after a year and a half, they made me the head of the entire national production division. All of a sudden, I was running the division of the WNET Thirteen, which was probably the largest production operation in all of public television.

I was running the division that produces Great Performances and Nature. Our terrific producers created new series like American Masters and The Mind. I was overseeing all of these amazing world-class productions and traveling around the world—going to Vienna and sitting on the beaches of Cannes doing co-production deals.

I would just look and say, what am I doing here? But the joke wasn’t on me. I was the first African-American running the largest production operation in all of public television. I made a run for the presidency of the station in 1987 but wasn’t successful. I didn’t want to stay. I wasn’t happy about how the search was handled. I thought they gave the internal candidates, including me, short shrift.

About that time a good friend of mine was appointed to be the president of the Rockefeller Foundation. I wrote him a letter congratulating him. I went on to suggest to him some things that I thought they might be interested in. He got the message that I was available and invited me to join the foundation as vice president. I got to originate a lot of new initiatives like the National Guard Youth Challenge Program which gives school dropouts a second chance.

Hugh’s mother, Charlotte Price participating with the League of Women Voters in a voting rights rally in the 1950s in Washington D.C. She’s wearing the check coat and seated in the buckboard seat. Photo appeared in the Washington Star.

Then, the National Urban League opportunity materialized in 1994. It was something that I had dreamed about my entire life. I had come of age professionally with people like Whitney Young, Vernon Jordan, John Jacob, Franklin Thomas, Roy Wilkins, and Clifton Wharton as my role models. These were brilliant, devoted professionals who were deeply committed to the cause and the advancement of black people. The National Urban League was then and now, a revered and indispensable organization that has been serving Black people since 1910. It was truly a privilege to be considered, recruited and appointed to that position. That was a dream come true.

When I was young, I set out to have as much fun as I could professionally as long as I could get away with it financially. And by fun, I mean I wanted to pursue work that was fulfilling, of service and made me feel like I was making a contribution. I got married in the middle of my first year of law school. Our first child arrived in the middle of my second year. I had a family. I knew that whatever I was doing professionally, I had to provide for my family just like my father did for his. This balance defined much of my life.

It’s funny. When I didn’t get the job as president and CEO of WNET Thirteen in New York, it kind of put me in a funk. I was sort of moping around the kitchen and our eldest daughter, who is very spiritual, came to me and said, “Don’t worry about getting that job. You’re being saved for something more important.” She said that to me in 1987. I didn’t know what she was talking about, but all of a sudden, the clouds cleared, and I started the job hunt. That’s when the Rockefeller Foundation position happened. When I was appointed President and CEO of the National Urban League seven years later, the something that my daughter had foreseen had materialized.

Were you satisfied with the progress of the National Urban League’s agenda during your tenure as CEO?

Yes, on a number of levels. One of my main objectives was building on the legacy, platform and contributions of others. The Urban League is almost 110 years old. We’ve only had eight CEOs in the organization’s entire history. Each CEO builds on the legacy and foundation of the previous CEO.

I used to walk in the lobby of our headquarters every morning and say to myself, “We must build on what John Jacob, Vernon Jordan, Whitney Young, and Lester Granger created.” We do not want, in any generation, to mess this up or weaken it. We have an obligation to build and evolve so that this institution can continue to be of service and has all of the skills and assets that it needs to be relevant. We must continue to be a leader and servant into the next century. That was what I had tried to do organizationally. I had no clue how it would happen. I just knew it had to happen.

We wanted to fortify our board and staff. We wanted to focus the organization a bit more programmatically. We wanted to create a very strong policy and research presence in Washington. We wanted to grow our endowment. We did what we needed to do to strengthen the affiliate movement. I used to say to folks in our organization, “The graveyards are filled with the carcasses and coffins of fabled nonprofit organizations and for-profit corporations that did not evolve.” They did not assess where they stood in the grand scheme of things and therefore fell by the wayside. Our job was to make sure that did not happen to the Urban League. It didn’t and still hasn’t. The League under its terrific current president, Marc Morial, is stronger than ever. We wanted to concentrate heavily on education and that was my shtick. We believed achievement mattered and encouraged parents to be deeply involved in their children’s education. We were a major player in education policy.

We were also very proud of the work we did in fighting against police brutality and unwarranted use of deadly force. This was long before Black Lives Matter. The League played an important role in getting President Clinton to pay attention to this issue with our press conferences. Leaders of our affiliates would come to Washington with the parents of young people who had just gotten shot by the police. We complemented the street protests, particularly of Al Sharpton and others, by working the policy front. I know we made a difference.

We were also involved in the battles to preserve and protect the principles underlying affirmative action. The horrific book called The Bell Curve came out, questioning the intellectual capacity of African-Americans. We lit out after that book. We said this is scurrilous research and racist. We held a major press event with Stephen Jay Gould and Edmund Gordon and a number of other experts to attack the fundamental premises of the book. I feel very gratified about the contributions the League has made.

Hugh addressing the cadets in the Puerto Rican unit of the National Guard Youth ChalleNGe Program, which he originated. Photo provided by the Puerto Rican National Guard.

At what point in your career did you begin to feel you had made it?

Like I said earlier, I wanted to have as much fun as I could professionally, as long as I could get away with it financially. I was never bored a day in my life in any job that I held. I moved around a lot, so I didn’t have the chance to get bored. I was a professional explorer, but as someone who was committed to service. This defined my entire career. I “made it” when I retired and had gotten away with it financially. I capped my career with the privilege of teaching at Princeton University. I worked with a remarkable generation of brilliant young people. The entire journey has been unexpected and thrilling.

My wife and I will be married for 56 years in December. We have three daughters and two sons-in-law who we love dearly. I worked very hard, but I also worked hard at being a loving and supportive husband and family man. I was all in career-wise, but I did not allow that to ruin the personal aspects of my life. The primacy of family which my parents instilled in me had an impact; it still does.

There were some disappointments. It would have been fun to be the first African-American president of the largest public television station in the nation. It took a while to get over it, but I was being saved for something more important and I can’t imagine a more fulfilling job than being president and CEO of the National Urban League.

What projects are you currently working on? How do you relax?

I do not have any new projects on the horizon. I recently finished two major projects. I published a memoir titled This African-American Life in 2017 and have done dozens of events over the last couple of years to promote it. I served on The National Commission on Social, Emotional and Academic Development. It was a remarkable effort. They issued their big final report in January.

I read a lot. I read material that is very intense then I have to relax my brain, so I read something less heavy. For example, I went from reading the fabulous new Frederick Douglass biography to reading the biography of Ernie Banks, a great Chicago Cubs shortstop. The next book I will pick up after that is a new book called Putin’s World. I go in and out of relaxing the brain and ramping it up again.

I’m trying to be true to the fact that my wife and I are retired. I’ve entered the zone where if I get asked to do stuff, I’m really selective. My wife and I spend a lot of time doing activities together. Despite the expense of living in the New York City area, there is always something fascinating to do. My wife is involved with the Neuberger Museum. We recently went on an art trek to a place called The Brant in the Lower East Side. The Brant has one of the most remarkable collections of paintings by Jean-Michel Basquiat anywhere in the world including one that sold for $150 million. I stood two to three feet from it. We have a place up in the Berkshires, so we love going up there and relaxing. When we get the opportunity, we love visiting our sprawling family which is spread out all over the country.

What advice would you give to the next generation of activists who would like to make real change in their communities?

It is critically important to be grounded and to understand the way communities, people and organizations work. You miss a lot if you only fly at a very high altitude and assume that you know all of the answers. It is very important to understand the nature and frailties of people and institutions. You can proclaim that this should happen or that should happen, but often times it doesn’t. You won’t be able to change anything if you don’t understand the vagaries of reality. Understand that change can happen rather quickly and at times, rather slowly, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t organize and prepare. You want to be ready for it. Then, when the window of opportunity opens, you can climb through.

You look at how long it is taking to solve issues surrounding climate change and the resistance that we still must overcome. You look at what it took to get the Voting Rights Act passed. The March on Washington didn’t yield a lot with President Kennedy. But after his tragic assassination, Lyndon Johnson was a very unexpected gift to the African-American community. Nobody saw Lyndon Johnson’s liberalism coming. When he arrived on the scene and was ready for change, all the work that leaders of the Civil Rights Movement had put in bore fruit. Johnson was ready to giddy on up and get legislation passed. In a matter of a couple of years, decades of work crystallized in legislation.

Cover of Hugh’s recent memoir, This African-American Life

During my later professional years, I saw the opportunity structure open up and immensely talented people could find jobs and make careers in worlds where we never had a presence before. A lot of talented people gravitated to the private sector. We must always remember that despite all the ugliness and pushback these days, Barack and Michelle Obama have shown the world what is possible in America. I sense that there is a real awakening of commitment and activism now. The outpouring of young candidates running and succeeding during the last midterm election was spurred by grassroots groups who were doing world-class organizing. There is a renewed spirit of service and commitment to changing this country.

Personal integrity is also important. We each have to be comfortable in our own skin about what we’re are prepared to sacrifice for the sake of our careers. I was not prepared to give up family. That is a very personal judgment. I was telling my students, “You all have to figure out where you are along the spectrum and then live with it.” You have to decide where you fit and then be at peace with it.