‘An incredible legacy’ — Albert Pelham, a leader in Montclair for decades, dies
By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
Albert Pelham, a lifelong community leader who fought for the underserved, died Thursday morning.
As longtime president of the Montclair NAACP, Pelham fought for civil rights — stressing often that was for all individuals.
As executive director of the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corp., he led its mission to “empower and support disadvantaged individuals, youth and families alike, to achieve an improved quality of life through training, education and advocacy.”
And in his work as president of the Montclair African American Heritage Foundation, he acted to honor the heritage of Montclair’s people of color.
A viewing will be held Thursday, Aug. 26, from 4 to 8 p.m. at Caggiano Memorial Home for Funerals, 62 Grove St. Funeral services will be held Friday, Aug. 27, at the Montclair High School auditorium, Park Street entrance, with a viewing from 10 to 11 a.m. and funeral service at 11. Interment will follow at Glendale Cemetery in Bloomfield.
In a statement from the Montclair NAACP, members called Pelham the “bedrock of the community.”
“It is with a heavy heart that we share the sad news of the transition of our leader and friend Albert Pelham,” the statement said. “Mr. Pelham was a fearless freedom fighter for civil rights, education and social justice. He was a tireless advocate for generations of families for the Greater Montclair Community. ... His leadership, vision and strength is a loss to all of us that care for social justice.”
Roger Terry, first vice president of the Montclair NAACP, said the group will “honor his legacy by pledging to continue the fight for civil rights and social justice."
Through the years, Pelham created programs for youths, including an after-school program for students and a program for suspended Montclair High Schools students that offered an alternative to sitting at home, instead providing academic training and counseling at the Wally Choice Center in Glenfield Park.
Most recently, as schools closed due to the pandemic and the issue of the digital divide became more acute, he helped create a partnership with the township to establish a remote-learning facility at the Wally Choice Center for 50 students. That program continued into the summer to help students who suffered academically from the school closures.
Apryl Sneed, a member of the NAACP, said she was inspired to join the group after hearing Pelham speak at a Montclair Public Library Black history program in 2017 — "I immediately took out NAACP memberships for me and my daughters."
"From that day forward, I was inspired to always follow your lead. I am ever-grateful for the care, interest, guidance and support you have shown me and my girls," she wrote in an email to Montclair Local. Pelham saw her daughters represent the NAACP at Martin Luther King Jr. Day services at St. Paul Baptist Church. He was there when her daughters introduced Lt. Gov. Sheila Oliver during NAACP Thurgood Marshall Freedom Fund Dinners in 2017 and 2019, she wrote.
"I will forever appreciate the kindness and sincere generosity you have always shown for me and my family," she wrote. "You have been an integral part in my daughters' growth and success."
Resident Lois Whipple said she and Pelham crossed paths most days: "He never failed to look me in the eyes and smile, and nod."
In a wide-ranging interview with Montclair Local earlier this year, Pelham's passion and support for the education and mental health of the next generation were apparent. He worried about getting coronavirus vaccines to people of color, and about people paying the rent and getting food on the table. All were issues that the pandemic had exacerbated, he said.
Even as the program at the Wally Choice Center alleviated some of the stress students faced being away from in-person learning and their peers, he wanted it to expand, to be able to serve more students.
“We know there’s a population of kids falling behind. We know there’s a bigger need. There’s 900 students on free or reduced lunches,” he said about the program's serving what he described as “just” 50 students while school was closed. “It can’t just be a wasted year.”
Montclair schools Superintendent Jonathan Ponds said Pelham’s “compassion and drive to always help families and students in need will live on through all the people he has touched.”
“He never looked at a problem and turned his back,” Ponds wrote in a statement. “He worked tirelessly until he solved it and never expected any accolades. His service to our community spans decades, and I am so grateful that I had the chance to meet him and stand with him this past year. He truly is a man without a rival.”
William Scott, who grew up with Pelham, said he will be remembered for his “far-reaching” involvement throughout Montclair, and his compassion for others.
"He was all over the place and took on the leadership. He was involved in so many things and left such an impact,” Scott said. “When people were hurting, he could feel that pain. He was passionate about that.”
Even up until the end, Pelham was involved in the community, Scott said. He noted Pelham’s role helping plan Montclair’s town-wide Juneteenth celebration this year, and the Montclair African American Heritage Foundation car caravan that paid tribute to the late Celess Young, a barber who for decades was a role model and friend to much of the community.
Angelica Flores said Pelham was "so loved by many." He saw her personal growth — beginning her career as a waitress at Ray's Luncheonette, then later purchasing the restaurant. She knew him for 15 years, half her lifetime, she said, "and it was an honor to serve such a wonderful human being. We will miss him and never forget him."
Bob Russo, who has served for decades on the Montclair Township Council and was mayor from 2000 to 2004, said Pelham was “a great leader for MNDC, and contributed so much to Montclair during his many years of service in our community.” He said he will miss his advice and encouragement.
Montclair Civil Rights Commission Chair Christa Rappaport, who worked closely with Pelham for more than 10 years, referred to him as “a mentor, mensch and good soul” who was always there to lend an ear and give “sage advice.”
She recalled his ability to always calm a room of people in a heated debate and get them back to the issue at hand.
Councilman Peter Yacobellis referred to Pelham as “a statesman and a giant who did more for this town than almost anyone else I can think of, and didn't seek credit for any of it.”
He said he could always count on him for his “unfiltered perspective on so many different issues.”
Essex County Executive Joseph N. DiVincenzo Jr., who worked with Pelham on his youth efforts at Wally Choice and most recently on getting the word out about coronavirus testing and vaccine clinics held at the county-owned Glenfield Park, said on Thursday: “Today Essex County and Montclair lost a great community leader and friend with the passing of Albert Pelham. Al was deeply engaged in the township and county he loved and was a welcoming presence at Essex County Glenfield Park.”
In 2019, Essex County recognized Pelham and the Montclair NAACP with its Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Award, during Black History Month.
County Commissioner and Montclair resident Brendan Gill said Pelham was a close friend as well as a mentor: “Al was a man who loved his community in the same vein that he loved his family.”
In a statement Pelham published on the NAACP blog at the end of 2019, he called on community members to listen to the hit record “Wake Up Everybody” released by Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes back in 1975.
“The lyrics were powerful and thought-provoking for many of us back in the day,” Pelham wrote. “Forty-four years later the lyrics and the spirit behind them are every bit as relevant as they were back then and absolutely worth sharing. ‘Wake up everybody, no more sleepin' in bed; No more backward thinkin', time for thinkin' ahead; The world has changed so very much; From what it used to be; There is so much hatred, war and poverty; Wake up all the teachers; time to teach a new way; Maybe then they'll listen to whatcha have to say; 'Cause they're the ones who's coming up and the world is in their hands; When you teach the children, teach 'em the very best you can.’ Folks, our country is in a crisis and we all need to wake up!”
Pelham was a 1968 graduate of Montclair High School and graduated from Bloomfield College, according to a statement the township released after his death.
“Known as ‘Alpine’ and ‘Pine,’ Pelham loved sports, people and helping the less fortunate,” the statement said. “This was exemplified by his work for two local nonprofit agencies, the State Parent Advocacy Network (SPAN) and the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corporation (MNDC), and stewardship as the president of the Montclair NAACP and Montclair African American Heritage Foundation.”
It said his mission in life was to “empower families and inform and involve professionals and other individuals in the healthy development and educational rights of children.”
Dr. Renee Baskerville, an activist, former Fourth Ward councilwoman and former Board of Education member, said Pelham had always been “an anchor of support, and beacon of hope, opportunity and ingenuity through these times in which many residents are finding elusive economic opportunities, mental and physical well-being.”
She described him as a “God-fearing man; an impassioned and engaged leader.” In her time in office, he was often a sounding board for difficult matters, she said.
Councilman David Cummings said in the township statement Pelham had been a part of his life since he was 7 years old, playing basketball at Glenfield Park.
“He was an inspiration, a source of support, and a straight-shooter who helped thousands of people,” Cummings said in the announcement. “We will never be able to replace him, but we must do all we can to keep his spirit and legacy alive.”
In a separate statement to Montclair Local, Cummings said there were “no words” to express the loss to Montclair, the Fourth Ward and the families Pelham’s life touched. He called Pelham a “man of principle, and his legacy in Montclair will never be forgotten.”
“He fed thousands, he got people jobs, shelter and health care,” Cummings wrote. “Everything he did came down to one thing, was it the right thing to do. That’s what he believed in. Doing the right thing the right way for the right reasons without worrying about whether people knew about it. He just did it, and he did it his way.”
Pelham is survived by his wife, Audrey, children, Dwayne Jones and Rhonda (Charles) Fischer, and grandchildren, Charles III and Cameron.