On the Walk of Fame on 135th Street, the late Percy Ellis Sutton’s plaque is embossed in gold on the sidewalk. A block and half away on Edgecombe Avenue, his name now adorns a school building, a complex that has been renamed the Percy Sutton Educational Complex.
Sutton, the legendary entrepreneur and political giant who died last December, joins a list of historical icons such as Thurgood Marshall, John Russwurm, Harriet Tubman and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. with schools named in their honor–a point made by Deputy Mayor Dennis Walcott, who moderated the dedication ceremony Monday morning.
“Percy Ellis Sutton was a community man,” Walcott added, and the community–particularly students at the campus and a few of its most noted leaders–was in attendance.
Schools Chancellor Joel Klein announced he had participated in a number of naming ceremonies, “but this one is special,” he said. The best way to honor Sutton is “to make education our new civil rights issue,” Klein added.
Each of the speakers, including Congressman Charles Rangel, former Mayor David Dinkins, New York City Comptroller John Liu, Council Members Inez Dickens and Robert Jackson, focused on different aspects of Sutton’s illustrious career, but education was a common theme.
Recalling his long and fruitful friendship with Sutton, Rangel told the students that they too, like Sutton, could achieve great things. “It’s a new world and it’s yours,” Rangel said, after asking the students to repeat Sutton’s name several times.
Dinkins noted that Sutton was a founder of the SEEK (Search for Education, Elevation and Knowledge) program at CUNY, which facilitated the entry and matriculation of students into the citywide system. “He was a man of great vision, and he understood that we all stand on somebody’s shoulders,” Dinkins said.
“Because he served our city with such distinction, he made it possible for me to be where I am today,” said Liu.
With a room full of dignitaries, including the NAACP’s Hazel Dukes, Lloyd Williams of the Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce, and noted broadcaster Harold Jackson, Dickens asked the students who the most important people in the room were. “You are,” she told the students. “You are because you are our future.”
When Dickens asked the audience to recognize the presence of Leatrice Sutton, Percy’s widow, there was a standing ovation. Dickens said there was no intention to slight the presence of Percy’s son, Pepe, or his granddaughter, Keisha Sutton-James, “but she’s the great lady of the family.”
Councilman Robert Jackson stated the meeting itself was a historic moment, saying, “You are giving me a history lesson right now.” He also mentioned Sutton’s role in the founding of SEEK and the legal representation he gave to Malcolm X.
“Mr. Sutton represented the best of our community,” said Briony Carr, principal of KAPPA IV, which, along with Bread & Roses High School and Mott Hall High School, makes up the campus complex.
“I know he’s looking down on you and praying for your success,” said Keisha Sutton-James about her grandfather’s good wishes for the students. “Education was the key to our family.”
“He was my mentor,” said Abdurrahim Ali, the assistant principal at Bread & Roses.