On 3 May singer Lloyd Price passed from complications of diabetes. He was 88 years old. Two weeks later, 17 May marked the 67th anniversary of the Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education, declaring racial segregation in public schools unconstitutional. Brown v. Board was a turning point in establishing the principle of racial equality in modern America.
However, educator and commentator Heather Cox Richardson, referring to the current American political climate, wrote on the anniversary of Brown, “Once you have replaced the principle of equality with the idea that humans are unequal, you have granted your approval to the idea of rulers and servants. At that point, all you can do is to hope that no one in power decides that you belong in one of the lesser groups.”
Lloyd Price had a keen awareness of what it was like to belong to a group deemed “lesser.” In his memoir-style collection of essays, sumdumhonky, Price describes in vivid detail his experience growing up Black in the deep South. He writes with jarring candor of his experience in the music business as a trailblazing Black artist and performer. Price’s commentaries on race relations and power structures in America, not just in his lifetime but throughout American history, are biting.
Other publications have paid tribute to Lloyd Price by rightly turning the spotlight on his accomplishments as a pioneering rhythm-and-blues artist and one of the first Black superstar entertainers of the rock-n-roll era. Indeed, it can be argued that Price wrote and recorded the first rock-n-roll song in 1952 for Specialty Records. “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” established the song structure and energy that many of the great early rock-n-roll songs followed.
In his memoir, Price claims that he was deliberately drafted and sent to fight in Korea because his music was having a profound impact on young whites, leading to racial mixing at his live performances. He further claims that, while in Korea, Art Rupe of Specialty replaced him with the “freaky deaky” Little Richard Penniman, who Price had introduced to Art Rupe. For my part, I was most familiar with Price’s 1959 hit “Personality.”
While I’ve enjoyed discovering his musical legacy, it’s Lloyd Price’s memoir that has truly rocked me. Published in 2015, his essays reveal deep cultural insight into the matter of racial inequality in the United States. His unvarnished description of his experience as a Black American is notably different than my experience as a white American. Lloyd Price lived and understood the profound implications of segregation and white supremacy in America.
I was reading sumdumhonky around the time of the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa massacre of June 1, 1921, in which a mob of white Tulsa residents stormed the affluent Black neighborhood known as Greenwood and burned it to the ground, resulting in the deaths of some 300 Americans.
Like Lloyd Price, the entrepreneurs and shopkeepers of Greenwood, known as the “Black Wall Street of America,” believed the American ideal should apply to all Americans. Similar to Price, economic success was forged in Greenwood despite the massive cultural inertia working against them. And the legacy of Greenwood remains largely unknown to the general population, not unlike Lloyd Price’s groundbreaking musical legacy.
Lloyd Price was a man of great ambition and succeeded, not only as an entertainer, but also as an entrepreneur in music publishing, construction and marketing specialty food products. Price’s achievements, and those of many people of color since the tragedy of Tulsa, are evidence that we have made progress as a culture. But Price was seemingly never allowed to forget that the promise and opportunity of the American ideal were deliberately reserved for others. Even as a success, he felt compelled to write:
At some point I realized there was no way I could accept or enjoy the conditions that were handed down to me here in America in the forties, fifties, and sixties. I can’t tell you what it felt like not feeling welcome in my place of birth, especially when I knew no other place, spoke no other language, and knew no other culture.
I learned much from Price reading sumdumhonky, and I have much more to learn. With my voice, my resources and my vote I can be a better ally to my fellow Americans who just happen to have different physical characteristics and ethnic origins. I can be part of leveling the playing field.
On this first Juneteenth federal holiday, let’s celebrate freedom for all people in America. But let’s not forget the promise of Brown v. Board. Let’s not forget Greenwood. And let’s not forget the legacy of Lloyd Price. Let’s remember that there is much work to be done before all Americans are equally free. Down the road it goes.
Thanks to artist Cain Clement for the drawings of Lloyd Price.