James E. Randolph Jr., 72, of Philadelphia, a longtime city government official and passionate defender of racial and juvenile justice, died Saturday, Dec. 26, of COVID-19 and other complications at Einstein Medical Center.
Devoted to inclusion and fairness, especially for young people of color, Mr. Randolph sought out fissures in society and worked to repair them. He traveled the country building bridges between police and the communities they served, and spent one-on-one time with countless children as if they were his own.
“He felt things so deeply,” his nephew Irv Randolph said. “Seeing injustice of any kind almost brought him to tears.”
“He would help anyone, but his first cause was working with people of color,” his son, Jim Randolph, said. “He felt he had so much to give.”
A lifelong student of current affairs, a soul-music radio host in college, and later a tenor in a rhythm-and-blues quartet, Mr. Randolph had a booming voice that could be heard across the room when he got going on issues that stirred his intellect.
“We always knew where he was in the house,” said his daughter, Antonia Randolph. “His voice would fill up the room. He was passionate about things but always kind.”
Mr. Randolph joined Philadelphia government in 1980, at first working in human and community services, including the antipoverty agency, and rising to deputy commissioner of Juvenile Justice Services. He tried to retire in 2008, but Mayor Michael Nutter asked him to stay on for a few more months as acting commissioner of Human Services.
“He finally retired, but he never stopped serving,” Irv Randolph said.
Mr. Randolph “retired” by working with, among others, Catholic Social Services and the Indochinese American Council in outreach and education programs. He served several roles on the Pennsylvania Commission on Crime and Delinquency, and championed reviews and corrections to the minority youth justice system.
He energized youth-and-law bias training sessions for the public and police in Philadelphia, across the state, and as far as Florida and Colorado. “His humor, insight, and love for Philadelphia made him the perfect person to build connection between these different groups,” his family wrote in a tribute.
Just weeks before his death, he helped get out the vote for the November election.
Mr. Randolph, one of eight children, was born in Philadelphia in May 1948. He grew up in North Philadelphia and graduated from Thomas Edison High School. He collected comic books as a boy and let his sisters borrow them. But he charged them a penny for late returns. He attended as many Edison reunions as he could, and would join in whenever the school song was performed.
He majored in history and sharpened his racial consciousness at Hamilton College, serving as both president and cofounder of the Black Student Union and president of Tau Kappa Epsilon (TKE), a predominantly white fraternity. He graduated in 1969 and went on to earn a master’s degree in public administration from Syracuse University.
It was in Syracuse that he met Cecilia Edwards, and they married in 1972.
Mr. Randolph loved baseball and the Phillies, and routinely rounded up nephews and nieces for games at the old Connie Mack Stadium. He liked to note that his retirement in 2008 coincided with the Phillies winning the World Series. He shared the same corny jokes with generations of family, and went out of his way to put folks at ease. He was simultaneously the life of the party and the adult that young people approached for advice.
He watched classic westerns on TV, flew kites in the park, and jammed to live jazz, soul, and funk music at local venues. Generosity was in his DNA, and his son Jim Randolph learned only after his death that Mr. Randolph bought Christmas presents one year for a coworker’s entire family.
“He was an advocate for all people,” Irv Randolph said.