Of Love and Justice
African-American activists Marilyn and Hugh Price have built illustrious careers championing those less fortunate.
photos by stefan radtke
Crammed with framed photographs of family and friends, books and awards, the bright, cozy den of their gracious Wykagyl Colonial offers a window into the remarkable lives of Marilyn and Hugh Price. Married since 1963 and residents of New Rochelle since 1978, this understated, erudite couple have led notable careers in pursuit of social justice and bettering the lives of African-Americans.
The author of five books, most recently This African-American Life, Hugh held varied, prestigious posts throughout his career, including as senior vice president of WNET 13, vice president of The Rockefeller Foundation, editorial writer for the New York Times, and president and CEO of the National Urban League. He also taught at Princeton’s Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.
Teaching low-income children propelled Marilyn into a career at MDRC, one of the country’s top social-policy research organizations, working to improve programs and policies aimed at underprivileged people.
While sharing similar values and professional interests, the couple “came at it in different ways,” shares Marilyn. “He moved around all the time; I worked for the same company for more than 30 years,” she laughs.
They settled in New Rochelle when Hugh left the New Haven mayoral cabinet to join the Times, looking for “an ethnically diverse community,” he says, with a strong school system and close commute to New York City. Acquaintances in Yale’s admissions office recommended New Rochelle, “plus, we loved the housing stock, and we had friends in the town.”
“We don't have a power-couple strategy. That's not what we're about.”
Adds Marilyn: “It’s an economically diverse city, which I also think makes it interesting, made it good for our kids growing up, to share this city with people whose economic circumstances are a little different from the community that they went to elementary school in.” Their three daughters, Traer, Janeen, and Lauren, attended New Rochelle public schools. “You know you’ve been in a town for a long time when the mayor of your town was an elementary classmate of one of your children,” jokes Hugh, referring to New Rochelle mayor Noam Bramson.
“It’s interesting how the county has evolved,” continues Hugh, a self-described film buff who is delighted there are now three art-house cinemas in Westchester. He served on the board of the Jacob Burns Film Center for 12 years, two as chairman.
“I think the restaurant selections were far less varied than they are now,” he says of the county. “We were at Red Hat just the other night, a fabulous place, so I think there is a growing recognition among restaurateurs that there are very sophisticated tastes in Westchester, and they are now catering to them more.”
He and Marilyn attend performances at Purchase College and frequent local museums, particularly the Neuberger Museum of Art, where Marilyn served on the board for more than 12 years and is now on its Honorary Council. She and Hugh were honored at the museum’s fundraising gala this past November.
They also “really enjoy the abundance of parks,” says Marilyn, naming Davenport and Glen Island as particular favorites, along with the cultural offerings of New York City.
Though they were both raised in Washington, DC, Marilyn and Hugh did not meet until he called on her during his freshman year at Amherst College and her sophomore year at Mount Holyoke, even though their families knew each other. Both were products of segregated and integrated schools: Marilyn was the only African-American student at Mount Holyoke her first year there and Hugh was one of five in his class at Amherst. They were influenced by their strong, secure, grounded upbringings.
“[I had] the more general orientation of doing some kind of work that is a service to better society, better conditions for people,” Marilyn explains thoughtfully. “I think that orientation came out of my family,” including her mother, a professor at Howard University College of Medicine, relatives who were teachers, and her physician father, who accepted lemon meringue pies as payment for services.
“It’s certainly vital to have a sense of humor. We laugh a lot, including sometimes at ourselves.”
During a teaching stint at a school that served a housing development in New Haven, while Hugh attended Yale Law School, Marilyn recognized that she and many of her colleagues “didn’t have a lot of concrete ideas as to why certain children were not achieving up to the level of their potential.” So she earned a master’s degree, “essentially in evaluation methods in social sciences,” and looked for a job “to use evaluation skills to investigate and study programs and approaches of policies that might help low-income students achieve,” she says.
Notable ancestors, such as Hugh’s activist mother, the civil rights movement, and the words and deeds of JFK and LBJ, all had a profound impact on Hugh, culminating in the realization while at the 1963 march on Washington, DC, that he wanted to devote his life to service. And “it wasn’t as though the world of the private sector was open for African-Americans,” he says simply. “Law firms weren’t hiring, not that I wanted to do that work anyway. This was what I wanted to do.”
Hugh calls himself “a restless, professional adventurer,” explaining, “There are causes and values I’ve pursued most of my career. It happens that the career moves have been in service of those.
I didn’t plot most of those career moves; most of them sort of materialized. If I got restless, usually something would present itself that was really enticing, and I would go for it.”
Emphasizing that he never imagined having opportunities at the Times and in public television, Hugh says, “I could not contain my curiosity about seeing what it was like to operate, compete, and be successful in those realms.”
In his nine years at the National Urban League, he launched the Campaign for African-American Achievement, spearheaded pressure on the federal government to combat police brutality and racial profiling, defended affirmative action, and helped repair relations between the black and Jewish communities.
Marilyn and Hugh now deliberately focus less on “substantive engagement,” preferring to spend time with each other, friends, and family around the country, traveling and reading — but their dance cards remain full.
“I’m going to do everything I can to neutralize or keep President Trump in check,” declares Hugh. “I’m so disturbed by what’s going on, about the mood of the country, the divisiveness in the country, so I will be trolling for some opportunity to be involved there.”
“I’m so disturbed by what’s going on, about the mood of the country, the divisiveness in the country, so I will be trolling for some opportunity to be involved there.”
He is a member of the National Commission on Social, Emotional, and Academic Development, and an emeritus member of the Westchester Clubmen, a group of African-American professionals who mentor middle school students. He is also a member of an informal social group called Whist Brothers.
Marilyn is a member of The Links and the Northeasterners, both civic groups for professional African-American women, as well as the county’s African-American Advisory Board. They’re also part of the Couples Club, a lively brunch group. “Really fascinating, interesting people in Westchester County,” remarks Hugh, “and its just fun to be around them.”
They’re clearly having fun together, too. Marilyn maintains that the foundation of their 54-year marriage is their deep friendship and complementary interests and strengths, noting, “It’s certainly vital to have a sense of humor. We laugh a lot, including sometimes at ourselves.” Hugh says they encourage each other’s interests, chiming in with, “These experiences and associations keep our lives together fresh and our synapses firing.”
They’re both decidedly uncomfortable with the term power couple. “We don’t think of it that way; we’re just who we are,” stresses Hugh. “We don’t have a power-couple strategy. That’s not what we’re about. That’s probably heavily influenced by the fact that neither one of our sets of parents were into that either. They were always content to be who they were. We’re blessed to make the contribution we’ve been able to make and especially blessed to live the life we’ve been able to live.”
Liz Susman Karp is a freelance writer who lives with her husband and sons in Briarcliff Manor.