EC's Price top orator, leader in 19th Century

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Joseph Charles Price

Speller, Ben March 2017.jpg


Sunday, June 3, 2018

Joseph Charles Price, an African American native of Elizabeth City, was considered one of the greatest orators of the nineteenth century. The London Times called him the “World’s Orator.”

By the time of his early death at the age of 39, he was a world recognized orator, president and founder of Livingstone College in Salisbury and an education and political leader of African Americans in the south.

Joseph Charles Price was born free in Elizabeth City on Feb. 10, 1854, to a slave father, Charles Dozier, a ship's carpenter, and a free mother, Emily Pailin. Since Price’s mother was a free woman, he also was a free child. Dozier was sold and sent to Baltimore and Emily married a man named David Price, whose name Joseph took.

In 1863, he moved with his mother to New Bern which was a haven to free blacks after it was occupied during the Civil War. Price attended the Boston Society’s St. Cyprian Episcopal School, which was known as the Lowell Normal School of New Bern. In 1871, Price married Jennie Smallwood of New Bern. The couple, who had known each other since childhood, had five children, William, Louise, Alma, Joseph, and Josephine.

In 1871 Price began his career in Wilson as a public-school teacher. After teaching for four years, he enrolled in Shaw University. While at Shaw University he joined the African Methodist Episcopal Zion (AMEZ) Church and was granted a license to preach. He then transferred to Lincoln University in Pennsylvania to pursue a degree in the classics. He graduated valedictorian at Lincoln in 1879.

He enrolled in the Department of Theology and was awarded a professional degree in 1881. In 1880 he was an AME Zion delegate to the Methodist Episcopal General Conference in Montgomery, Ala., and in September 1881 was a delegate to the Ecumenical Conference in London England. He remained in England for one year raising funds for the Zion Wesley Institute which would be used to establish Livingstone College in Salisbury.

His fundraising patrons in the United States for Livingstone College included the following entrepreneurs: William E. Dodge, Alexander Walters, Senator Leland Stanford, Mark Hopkin, Jr., Mary Ellen Pleasant, and Steven V. White. In 1882, Price was installed as president and professor of Livingstone College. As president he continued his work as a preacher and leader in the African Methodist Episcopal Zion domination.

Price was active in national, state, and local Republican politics. In 1888, President Grover Gleveland asked Price to serve as minister to Liberia, but Price felt he could do more by staying at Livingstone College. By infusing politics and civil rights, Price was less conciliatory than Booker T. Washington.

He stated that blacks were willing to cooperate and live peaceably with southern whites, but not at the cost of their own freedom of constitutional guarantees. He wrote that, “A compromise that reverses the Declaration of Independence, nullifies the national constitution, and is contrary to the genius of this republic, ought not to be asked of any race living under the stars and stripes; and if asked, ought not to be granted.”

Price’s activist, black education, and civil rights roles ended abruptly in 1893, when he contracted and died of Bright’s disease at age 39. He was buried on the campus of Livingstone College.

“W.E.B.” Du Bois, August Meier, and others felt that it was the leadership vacuum created by Price’s death into which Booker T. Washington moved, and that had he lived, the influence and reputation of Joseph Charles Price would have been as great or greater than that achieved by Washington.

Ben Speller, PhD, is Retired Dean and Professor, North Carolina Central University School of Library and Information Sciences, Durham, North Carolina. He is President of the Friends of the Museum of the Albemarle and Chair of the History and Legends Committee, Edenton Historical Commission.