By JAIMIE JULIA WINTERS
“We are here to talk about a legend of a man who did nothing for himself, but gave of himself,” the Rev. Craig Dunn of the First Baptist Church told a crowd of hundreds who gathered to honor Albert Pelham Friday.
Pelham was a lifelong community leader who fought for the underserved. He died on Aug. 19, at the age of 71.
Family, friends and community members gathered in the Montclair High School auditorium Friday morning to remember the man who had left an indelible mark on so many.
He was remembered as the longtime president of the Montclair NAACP, fighting for civil rights for all individuals; as the executive director of the Montclair Neighborhood Development Corp., helping those in need get housing and put food on the table, and youths gain access to education; and as president of the Montclair African American Heritage Foundation, honoring the heritage of Montclair’s people of color.
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He was remembered as someone who liked to prod those he loved and believed in, as someone who could be sarcastic — and as someone who drew out the best in others by both demanding it of them and giving them the support they needed to achieve it.
Dunn said that although a major “tree in our community has been cut down, it will sprout again” as others continue Pelham’s work.
Most will remember Pelham for his work with the youth of Montclair and his determination that education can lift children out of poverty.
Through the years, Pelham created programs for youths, including an after-school and summer program for students, Project Oasis, and a program for suspended Montclair High School 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 coronavirus 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.
Pelham was always there for the young boys and girls who held their heads low, telling them to instead hold their heads high, the Rev. Charles Fisher III, Pelham’s son-in-law, said. Fisher is the vice president for seminary advancement at the Pittsburgh Theological Seminary.
Pelham’s niece, Shakira Pelham, who served with him on the NAACP, said “there’s so many people you can’t depend on, some you can depend on and then there’s Albert.”
Because he cared so much, “he carried a heavy load,” U.S. Rep. Mikie Sherrill, who serves the 11th District and lives in Montclair, said. “He was a man of action.”
Many spoke of seeking his guidance and sage advice, including Sherrill.
“He wanted so much for us all to succeed,” she said.
Essex County Executive Joseph DiVincenzo Jr. credited Pelham with getting people fed, tested and vaccinated during the pandemic, but said it’s his work with young people over the decades for which he’ll be most remembered.
“That legacy will continue, Al wants us to continue,” DiVincenzo said.
Councilman David Cummings said the first time he met Pelham was on the basketball courts at Glenfield Park, when Cummings was a boy. It was also the last place Cummings spent time with Pelham before his death. Referring to him as a “servant leader,” Cummings said Pelham believed in a vision and then believed in the people to get it done. He gave people the tools and guidance to achieve things for themselves, Cummings said.
“That was his leadership. He wouldn’t give you the shirt off his back, but he showed you how to get that shirt,” Cummings said. “We have a big void to fill. But together, he gave us enough to get it done.”
Pelham’s daughter, Rhonda Fischer, spent time caring for her father before his death. She said he worked up until the end, spending much time on the phone after having the breakfast she brought him from his beloved Ray’s Luncheonette.
“He showed up for all of you … without expectation of reciprocity,” she said.
The Rev. Carl Day of Culture Changing Christians Worship Center of Philadelphia and Montclair called on the community to celebrate Pelham’s wife, Audrey, saying that a man of service like Pelham carries the weight of the community when he comes back home at night.
Day read from Timothy 4:6-8.
“For I am already being poured out like a drink offering, and the time for my departure is near,” he read. “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.”
Pelham’s sister, Waulina Pelham, said Montclair can choose someone to fill Pelham’s roles, but they’ll never be the same as he was.
Day challenged the community to continue Pelham’s good work.
“This is a man who literally got up everyday and poured his life out like a drink offering,” Day said, referring to the Bible passage.
He challenged those present: “Pour ourselves out. Honor Mr. Pelham by doing the work. Don’t wait. Follow his example, otherwise it becomes just a good story.”
As a legacy to Pelham’s work with the young, the family is requesting donations be made to the new Albert Pelham Scholarship Fund created by the Montclair African-American Heritage Foundation. A link to donate is at MontclairNAACP.org.