The Klan could burst through the door at any moment.
The chances of a guard getting in the way were slim. If supremacists wanted to kill any of the college kids locked away, they could. No one would stop them. No one would bat an eye if a few young African Americans lost their lives.
These are the fears that raced through Mary Pritchett’s head as her son Forrest called from a Dover, Del. jail back in 1961. Then a student at Delaware State, a historically black college, he and some of his friends had staged a sit-in at a local diner. Now he needed $50 – a hefty amount at the time – to post bail. Mrs. Pritchett, at home in Atlantic City, feared he would not make it through the night if she failed to get him the money.
But her son was not worried about the consequences of his actions.
He was focused on making a difference at a time when change was sweeping the nation.
Fifty-six years after his arrest, the Rev. Dr. Forrest Pritchett is still doing what he can to impact lives. A member of the Seton Hall community since 1978, Pritchett is heavily involved in the African American community. He has been the assistant dean of the Black Studies Center and an adjunct professor in the department of Africana. He currently serves as director of the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Leadership Program, which emphasizes servant leadership and provides standout students with scholarship money.
Pritchett remembers feeling an urge to carry on King’s legacy when the civil rights trailblazer was assassinated in 1968.
“I laid there with tears in my eyes thinking, ‘How could America kill a man of God? Is there no shame to the extent to which racism will manifest itself to maintain this system of social stratification and degradation?’” Pritchett recalled.
Ten years later, Pritchett signed on at Seton Hall as an assistant Black Studies professor and soon seized an opportunity to join the leadership program.
His continual involvement in civil rights activism inside Seton Hall and beyond has been well-recognized through the years. Pritchett has received honors such as the New Jersey Association of Black Educators’ Black Educator of the Year Award, the Association for the Study of Afro American Life and History’s Frederick Douglass-Sojourner Truth Award and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People: New Jersey Convention’s Distinguished Educator Award.
Plaques, awards and certificates decorate Pritchett’s cluttered Mooney Hall office, along with posters of King, Gandhi, Malcolm X and Nelson Mandela. The honor bestowed upon Pritchett by President Barack Obama stands out. It was in early 2016 that the office of the President of the United States, along with the Corporation for National Community Service, presented Pritchett with the President’s Lifetime Achievement Award.
Pritchett, reserved when talking about his own accomplishments, said the honor “brought me to tears.”
“What you have to understand about him is that he doesn’t do things for those accolades that might come at the end,” said Brenda Knight, Pritchett’s friend and the secretary to the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences at Seton Hall. “He does it because there is a need.”
Pritchett has made his mark at Seton Hall, immersing himself in far more than the African American community.
The professor won the Pirate Pride Award from 1999-2000, the University McQuaid Medal in 2003 and Employee of the Year in 2008. Sporting a deep baritone, Pritchett is the faculty advisor to the school’s gospel choir.
That is where he met Dr. Kirk Johnson. Now an adjunct professor at Seton Hall, Farleigh Dickinson and Berkeley, Johnson was a freshman at SHU in 2004. It was around that time he lost his father. He remembers confiding in Pritchett while on a choir retreat. The two immediately connected.
“He was a mentor, a father figure,” Johnson said. “He still is a father figure to me.”
Over the years, countless students have gotten to know Pritchett through his main job on campus, faculty mentor in the Freshman Studies department. He said a freshman mentor’s job is “to ensure the success of all first time students.”
Knight said it is compassion that allows Pritchett to do the job so well.
“He is interested in the student as a whole and not as much worried about all of the grades students are always so anxious about,” she said. “That means those things which happen in the classroom, those things which could be of a personal manner.”
Those who know Pritchett will say he never stops caring, that he ceases to ease up on his work. Again, more unwanted recognition.
“Rev. Dr. Pritchett has our heartfelt appreciation for his service to our great University, for all that he has done in support of our mission – for being a true Servant Leader,” Seton Hall president Dr. A. Gabriel Esteban said in an email. “I thank him for being an inspiration to our students and to the entire University.”
Pritchett is not looking for gratitude. He said he sincerely enjoys playing a part in what is a major transitional period for students. The man knows a thing or two about change in life.
Pritchett was just 12 years old when he walked into school with a sharp, jagged piece of metal.
He was tired of coughing up nickels and dimes to what he at the time called “bullies.” When he told the aggressors he could no longer afford to hand over his lunch money, the gang members threatened to kill him. Pritchett responded by coming in “strapped.”
“I told them, ‘One of you has to make a decision. You might kill me, but I’m taking one of you with me,’” he recalled.
The incident amounted to nothing more than a standoff, but it earned Pritchett a reputation. Before long, other kids were dropping his name, threatening “Forrest has my back” when cornered by trouble. Soon, Pritchett had a group of his own.
By age 14 he was leading a gang of 100-something kids, offering protection while trying to implement what he called a “positive” and “nurturing” atmosphere. Pritchett said gangs were a little more structured back then, with “territory” being the main source of conflict.
“A ‘rumble’ was an organized fight in which two or more gangs would line and face each other, similar to the Revolutionary War,” Pritchett said, comparing his group to modern day gangs. “If you hurt, harmed or killed an innocent person, your gang would punish you.”
Still, Pritchett found trouble as authorities in Atlantic City began to crack down on gang-related activity. Long before he was arrested for the Delaware sit-in, he found himself sentenced to seven years in a juvenile detention center in Atlantic City. It was then that he realized he needed some course correction.
Pritchett immediately began playing peacemaker, acting as a mentor to the center’s youngest. Those in charge quickly considered him to be a model inmate, by his account. Meanwhile, some community members, including a couple of nuns, fought to have Pritchett’s sentence commuted. They argued he and his gang actualy had made the streets safer. Others questioned the judge’s motivation in the lengthy sentencing.
By what he calls the grace of God, Pritchett was out in just seven weeks. He was placed on three years probation.
It was Pritchett’s education, as well as his faith, that led him to where he is now.
He was admittedly uninterested in the classroom when he arrived at Delaware State. It took him two years to convince himself he was cut out for college, but he soon found himself civically engaged. He realized he wanted to be a part of the Civil Rights Movement.
As for his faith, Pritchett was raised Protestant. He began to invest more time in religion after those nuns saved him from a lengthy juvenile incarceration. He has carried his faith with him throughout his life, though even that has undergone a transformation.
Pritchett converted to Catholicism for his wife, Barbara. The two are ministers at Christ Church in Rockaway, N.J. Pritchett said that the aspect of confession appealed to him when making the decision to switch.
“It implies a closer relationship with God with a sense of redemptive discipline and self-purification,” Pritchett explained, hinting at his childhood experiences.
That was a long time ago, however. Looking back at his life, it is easy to wonder how Pritchett made it from running the streets of Atlantic City as a kid to being a distinguished activist and educator at Seton Hall.
He has changed a few times over since he was a teenager. Though, as he did during his gang days, he continues to look out for others. Whether it be with the Civil Rights Movement, inner city youths in his neighborhood or a Seton Hall choir boy who lost his father, Pritchett has always tried to make a difference.
“He’s a great man. He’s an amazing man. He’s impacted a lot of people’s lives,” Johnson said. “He’s definitely a campus jewel, a campus treasure.”
Gary Phillips can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @GaryHPhillips.