By Gloria Dulan-Wilson
I have to admit that I have always had Percy Sutton on a pedestal of sorts. From the first time I met him, during my initial forays into the realm of Black journalism, he has always been a gentleman and a guide to who is and who isn’t in the realm of our very delicately placed hierarchy. And though he never vocalized it, he was indeed “The Chairman.”
I loved talking with him, that smooth voice, that ever present smile, the “G-Q” style. But it was his generosity of spirit that was so engaging. I don’t think there was ever a time that he was totally out of sorts. Even when he lost the pivotal election of 1977.
The numerous conversations I’ve had with Percy Sutton over the 25 years I personally knew him convinced me that he could, and often did, walk with kings and not lose the common touch. I so enjoyed the rare, but awesome times I was privileged to be in his company. But I was deeply honored when he granted me a private one-on-one personality profile interview, which allowed me an all too rare glimpse into the genius of this wonderful man.
I remember telling him that I would love to clone him, because there were too few Black men like him on the planet. He always took compliments with a certain amount of grace. Maybe it was a carry over from the southern upbringing he received from his parents. Whatever that was, Percy Sutton’s heart, soul, vision, tenacity, perseverance, are all to be admired, revered, and replicated.
Percy Sutton, a true Saggitarian, spoke fondly of saving the Apollo from the wrecking ball: “I guess I could have looked at it as just another building in Harlem. Especially with so many other areas needing attention. But when I thought about all the talent and creativity that had appeared on that stage, I knew that it would be demoralizing to the whole community. Apollo was part of our culture. It was part of who we are as Black people. I would like to say that I got wholehearted support from the community and from my peers. But most of them thought I was crazy, and that it wasn’t worth it. It nearly broke me, but I was determined to bring it back to the splendor that it represented in the community.”
I wasn’t the only one in my family who was impressed with Percy Sutton He won my son over when he spoke at A. Phillip Randolph High School at his graduation ceremony in the 90’s (boy does that sound like a long time ago!). He was 17 at the time: “Mom, I didn’t know Mr. Sutton was that smart. He said you’re never poor or broke as long as you have a brain and are resourceful. That there’s always something you can do. He gave the example buying a box of cookies; repackaging them and selling them two for a quarter, and continuing to do so until you have enough to parlay it into money to begin another business or enterprise. He made it sound so simple.”
In fact, his perseverance and tenacity are legendary. He actually ran away from home to New York from Texas -- TWICE!. He became a Tuskeegee Airman in New York after the south refused to allow him to enlist in the services.
He started QUICS Queens Inner City Cable System -- another project where he did not have a lot of support from his political allies. He diligently persevered until he got the enterprise up and running. “I sat up nights, studying, learning all I could about the cable industry. I decided that if others could, so could I.” It was pretty much the same with the operation in South Africa.
When I asked him if he had ever thought about running for political office again, and he stated that he was happy for the opportunity to have been Borough President, but was even happier as a private businessman. He felt that had he stayed in office, he would never have founded QUICS, refurbished the Apollo, started the communication system in South Africa. “Ms. Dulan (he never called me Dulan-Wilson), the problem with politics and business is that you have too many rules that get in the way of being an entrepreneur, and independent thought and action. If I completely adhered to the rules of the political realm, things may have turned out differently. There most likely would not have been an Apollo. I love and respect my peers, but they don’t know beans about business!”
It took the Chairman nearly ten years to get the communication system we now know as Inner City Broadcasting System up and running. WLIB was his pride and joy. “We absolutely needed our own communication system in New York City. How could we be the center of Black culture and not have a voice?” Later he acquired WBLS. They subsequently moved from Second Avenue to Park Avenue. An empire was launched.
Mr. Sutton spoke fondly of his father, and his childhood in Texas. He talked about having met the great educator and Black historian, Carter G. Woodson when he was eight or nine years old. Woodson was a friend of his father’s. Reminiscing, he said: “I learned a lot about Black history from him. He would sit and talk about how important it was for Black people to learn a much about their history as possible. He said it was our responsibility to learn and then teach others what we learned.” He also indicated that whenever Mr. Woodson came he and his siblings would try to hide in order to escape the lectures. “He could go on and on, and we wanted to play. But our parents made us sit and listen.” Both Mr. Sutton and I grew up celebrating “Negro History Week”, which later became Black History Month, in our respective states of Texas and Oklahoma.
As a Tuskeegee Airman he and his peers knew that they had to prove that Black men were capable, competent and worthy of respect. That there was nothing they could not do. Their unity of spirit and resolve fueled lifelong friendships, and earned them the respect they deserved. Yet this same legend came back and worked two jobs while putting himself through law school.
Mr. Sutton was part of a group of political powerhouses called the “Gang of Four”, which consisted of former mayor David N. Dinkins, Congressman Charles Rangel, and Basil Paterson. Each of these four have been instrumental in reshaping Black political power in New York City. "We were the young turks of the time." They went up against the legendary Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., and Charles Rangel defeated him in his bid to return to Congress. But it was Sutton that audaciously and successfully spanned both the political and business realm.
He was not a man who could be pigeon holed into one narrow definition. And those who tried to do so quickly found out that he wouldn’t stay there, either. He was definitely his own man. He was a visionary. He was an activist. He was a genteel militant. His love for and support of Malcolm X, his wife Dr. Bette Shabazz, and their family remained strong. “Anything they need, we are prepared to help them with. Malcolm was a powerful man who wanted nothing but justice for his people.” Through his influence and efforts, he made it possible for his children to attend school, and protected his widow from the vicious, prying eyes of the mainstream media.
However, during the tragedy that befell her, and eventually took her life, we talked briefly. He was representing Malcolm X’s grandson, young Malcolm, after the tragic death of his grandmother, Dr. Betty Shabazz. “Let me say this. There are so many who want to fix blame. But he’s a kid. And he is terrified and totally remorseful. He’s still trying to understand exactly what happened. He’s just a little boy now with so many people pointing fingers of guilt at him, when what he really needs is comfort and a hug. And the person who would have given him that hug is now in a coma.”
Last Percy Sutton Story: When David Dinkins was mayor, and had his first Town Hall meeting, which was televised over Fox Five TV, I asked a question about furloughing teachers. After the program, two very elderly ladies in their 80’s or 90’s came up after the event had ended. I was talking to Percy. Always the gentleman, he greeted them graciously, and introduced me to them. They looked at me in righteous indignation and said, “We don’t like her!” Percy said, “You don’t? Why not?” They responded, “She sassed the mayor.” Percy said: “She sassed the mayor? How did she sass the mayor?” They responded, “Questioned him about schools. That’s sassing!” He defended me and said: “She just asked the Mayor about where the kids would be. That’s not sassing. She’s a reporter.“ But those ladies were adamant. “No suh, Mistuh Sutton! That’s sassing. Sassing is bad.“ We watched as they slowly walked off, then he laughed and stated quietly: “It’s that residual slave issue that we still can’t get rid of.”
Mr. Sutton’s wisdom is legendary. And he had no problem sharing what he knew. I joked with him about needing to write an autobiography in volumes, instead of chapters. It could very easily end up being three of four volumes with a 200 page epilogue.
When I received the news that Percy Sutton had made his transition, I was in the process of working with a friend, Zach Husser, to do an updated one-on-one personality profile interview with him. This was just prior to Thanksgiving. Joe Barnes, owner of Mobay’s Restaurant, and Bobbi Humphrey, who are both close to the family, and informed me that Percy had recently been admitted to a nursing home. A month later he was gone.
Mr. Sutton was and is one of my personal heroes. He belongs in the realm of what I call Fine Black Men: Articulate, intelligent, talented, honest, creative, visionary, powerful, positive, generous, and fine. He was all that and so much more. Truly a man to be emulated and admired. I do hope that there will be a Sutton Archives curated with a collection of his speeches, writings, and what I called “the Sutton Touch”, so his wonderful example is not lost on our up coming generations.
God has blessed him and his family with the stuff that genius is made of. My Condolences and Congratulations to Pepe, Cheryl, Ms. Sutton, and the rest of the family for having had the blessing of such a wonderful man in your lives for such a long time. Your memories must be great. And after you get over initial feelings of sadness, just think back over the wonderful Percy Sutton stories and adventures you’ll have to treasure and share. My condolences and congratulations to the Village of Harlem, South Africa, Queens and the world for having been blessed with the "Sutton Touch."
Homegoing Services for The Chairman will be held Wednesday, January 6, 2010 at 11:00 AM at Riverside Church, where we honor most of our dignitaries. But the spirit and energy of Percy Ellis Sutton will continue to permeate Harlem and the African American Heritage for a lifetime.
Stay blessed &