"Mr. Chairman," Percy Ellis Sutton, passes at 89 (37565)


Percy Sutton will be funeralized at the Riverside Church, 490 Riverside Drive, New York, Harlem, on Wednesday, January 6, at 11 a.m. The Sutton family has confirmed that they have asked Rev. Al Sharpton to deliver the eulogy. The service will be open to the public. For more information regarding the funeral, contact the Terrie Williams Agency at (212) 316 0305.

In Harlem’s glorious pantheon, Percy Ellis “Mr. Chairman” Sutton, a Tuskegee Airman, was among its most cherished icons. But his power and influence had a global significance and resonated beyond the corridors of Harlem where he was a highly regarded attorney, entrepreneur, civic leader, civil rights activist, and patriarch of a prominent family. Sutton, 89, died quietly in his sleep Saturday, December 26 in New York City.

“Percy Sutton was a true hero to African Americans in New York City and

around the country,” said President Barack Obama. “We will remember him for his service to the country as a Tuskegee Airman, to New York State as a state assemblyman, to New York City as Manhattan Borough President, and to the community of Harlem in leading the effort to revitalize the world

renowned Apollo Theater.

“His life-long dedication to the fight for civil rights and his career as an entrepreneur and public servant made the rise of countless young African Americans possible. Michelle and I extend our deepest condolences to his family on this sad day,” the president continued.

From around the world, condolences arrived to the Sutton family as they prepared to mourn his passing. But it was in his beloved Harlem that the grief was most visible and tearful. “When he walked down 125th Street everybody knew who he was and [he] always took a little time to greet them and ask how they were doing,” said Tariq, a vendor. “He possessed such elegance, so debonair and always smartly dressed.”

“Tonight, we say farewell to one of New York’s and this nation’s most influential African-American leaders – a man whom I am proud to have called a friend and mentor throughout my entire career,” said Governor David Paterson. “Percy Sutton was a trailblazer,” he continued. “He began his career as a prominent lawyer for Malcolm X and then took Harlem by storm as a leader of the Harlem Clubhouse where he launched not only his own successful political career but, as a member of the Gang of Four, spawned the successful careers of so many other African-American leaders. It was Percy Sutton who talked me into running for office and who has continued to serve as one of my most valued advisors ever since.”

When Sutton purchased and renovated the Apollo Theater in the early ’80s, it sparked a renewal of 125th Street, said the Rev. Al Sharpton at the press conference outside the Apollo on Sunday morning. “I’ve known Percy since I was 12 years old,” Sharpton recalled. “In 1972, when the National Black Political Assembly had its convention in Gary, Indiana, Percy paid my way As far as I’m concerned he is the quintessential Afican American of the 20th century.”

Born November 24, 1920 in San Antonio, Texas, Sutton was the youngest of 15 children. When he was 12 years old he ran away from home and somehow managed to get all the way to Harlem. That was a brief stay and back home in Texas he began flying stunt planes. This experience will go on to serve him well as a member of the Tuskegee Airmen, though he was mainly an intelligence officer.

“I first met Percy in the summer of 1944 in Italy during World War II,” fellow Tuskegee Airman Dr. Roscoe Brown recalled during a tribute to Sutton last year. “He was the intelligence officer for our group, and what made him stand out for me was his distinct diction. Whenever we had a mission, Percy had a way of putting a human face on things.”

And that diction and putting a human face on things were part of his charm and charisma, and this went a long way toward winning the love of Leatrice O’Farrell, who married him in 1943. Pierre and Cheryl are their two children. Keisha, Maximillian, Danielle, and Sierra are the grandchildren, and Nola James the great-grandchild.

After being honorably discharged from the military with the rank of captain, Sutton enrolled in Brooklyn Law School while holding down two jobs, one as a subway conductor for the New York Transit where he read torts between stops, and the other at the post office. Ironically, as Sharpton noted, the post office on 125th Street next door to Sutton’s office is named after him.

Among his first clients upon receiving his law degree were men who matched his audacity: boxing immortal Sugar Ray Robinson and Malcolm X (El Hajj Malik El-Shabazz). It was with the same fearless commitment that he joined the civil and human rights movement, braving arch-segregationists as a Freedom Rider and enduring the terror and confinement of southern jails.

The movement, particularly standing up to the Klan and other white supremacists, was all the preparation he needed when he assumed the helm of the New York City Branch of the NAACP. Hazel Dukes met Sutton for the first time in Chicago in 1963 at a NAACP national convention. “We were planning a march but the Rev. J.H. Jackson, who was the president of the National Baptist Convention, didn’t believe in the civil rights marches,” she said. “He felt that marching were unpatriotic. Later that evening Percy called a meeting of the New York Caucus that was opposed to the NAACP’s old guard. So, being a good Baptist, I raised my hand, and I said ‘Well, he’s a minister…’ and before I could say another word, Percy said, ‘Very well, young lady, but I want you to take your seat.’ I was stunned.

“When I think about that incident now,” added Dukes, who is the president of the New York State Conference of NAACP Branches, “he was absolutely right.”

And being right has been the hallmark of Sutton’s odyssey, and his prescience in the world of business has been almost miraculous. “He was the consummate entrepreneur,” said Londel Davis, owner of Londel’s supper club. “It’s going to be really hard to replace him and what he has meant over the years to our community.”

Sutton’s ability and vision as a businessman was matched by his political prowess. Despite early setbacks in the quest for elected office he was undaunted and eventually won a seat in the assembly and for eleven years, from 1966 to 1977, he was Borough President of Manhattan.

But for State Senator Bill Perkins, Sutton was a “miracle worker,” something former Mayor David Dinkins has also labeled his friend and associate. “I remember when 125th Street was infested with rats and just about every business was boarded up,” Perkins said. “Percy bought the Apollo, renewed it and returned it to its original glory, and things began to change on the street and elsewhere in Harlem.”

“Percy Sutton, a ‘Man for all seasons,’ has served as a role model for me and for family responsibility,” said Lloyd Williams, CEO and president of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, during the tribute to Sutton last year. “He is a father, a grandfather, a great-grandfather, stepfather, a godfather, big brother, surrogate, uncle, counselor, educator, mentor, advisor, and friend to his entire family. His love for Leatrice is as deep and fresh today as it was 50 years ago.”

“I want to be remembered as a man who loved his brothers and sisters, a man who was not afraid,” Sutton said on many occasions.