Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Percy Ellis Sutton: Honoring a Legend

Last December, as we purchased last minutes gifts, sang Christmas carols, and prepared for New Years, Percy Ellis Sutton quietly took his last breaths. Mr. Sutton’s life was comprised of the je ne c’est pas of legends. He was born in San Antonio, Texas in 1920 to a former slave. Yet, he would become one of the most powerful, business, political, and legal forces in New York City history. Rev. Jesse Jackson's stated that “[Sutton] never stopped building bridges and laying the groundwork.…We are very glad to be the beneficiaries of his work."

Mr. Sutton served in the U.S. Army during World War II as a member of the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. He became a member of the New York Bar in 1950 and proudly opened a law office in Harlem, USA. He served as an attorney for Malcolm X, in the heat of the Civil Rights Movement, and he also represented more than 200 activists arrested during the 1963-1964 Civil Rights Marches. In 1966, Mr. Sutton was elected as Manhattan Borough President. A position he would hold for almost 12 years, the longest that any elected official has held that particular position.

In 1971, Mr. Sutton co-founded Inner City Broadcasting Corporation and purchased WLIB-AM and WBLS-FM, the first black-owned radio stations in New York City. In the process, Mr. Sutton became a media mogul providing local news about events happening in the predominantly minority communities in New York City, proving that money can be made by serving the public good. In an interview with Mr. Sutton approximately 30 years ago, he strongly encouraged minorities to become small business owners. It is available here.

In 1981, Mr. Sutton will forever be remembered as the man who saved the Apollo Theater from bankruptcy. Upon his acquisition of the Apollo Theater, Mr. Sutton became instrumental in the revitalization of the tattered Apollo Theater, which ushered in an era of gentrification in Harlem, USA attracting investors such as Magic Johnson to open movie theaters, and pioneer entrepreneurs such as Anita Roddick who opened The Body Shop along the famous 125th Street fairway. With Inner City Broadcasting as the operator of the Apollo, shows such as It's Showtime at the Apollo were nationally syndicated and became very successful in the weekend television line-up. It's Showtime at the Apollo showcased local talent, as well appearances of well-known performers such as Whitney Houston, Patti LaBelle, New Edition, and Stephanie Mills. The Apollo will turn 76 this year, in large part due to Mr. Sutton’s commitment to public service, and preserving the past for the benefit of future generations.

In March 1988, on a wintry Tuesday afternoon, a bright-eyed sophomore from Columbia University wandered into Harlem, USA looking for the famed Apollo Theater, while she stood with her nose pressed against the glass entrance door trying to get a glimpse of a “star,” a deep voice behind her said, “it’s warm inside the theater, would you like to come in?” The young sophomore nodded her head and agreed, in the hopes of seeing a “star” rehearse. Forty-five minutes later, after the young sophomore had shared her story of her parents migrating from Ayiti, growing up in Flatbush Brooklyn, obtaining a full scholarship to Columbia University, and hoping to become an international corporate attorney, Mr. Sutton offered the young sophomore a job as an usherette at the Apollo so she could catch a glimpse of the “stars” rehearsing. It was my first “paying” job. Years later, when I would write my law school admissions personal statement, I cited Mr. Suttons words to me on that bitterly cold Tuesday afternoon, “Everything we do must be with a seriousness of purpose. Everything we do will become a legacy for others to follow. Do not worry about what you have or do not have, simply do what you believe needs doing for a better future for a greater good.” New York Governor David Paterson, stated that “Percy was fiercely loyal, compassionate and a truly kind soul.…He will be missed but his legacy lives on through the next generations of African-Americans he inspired to pursue and fulfill their own dreams and ambitions."

In honor of Mr. Sutton’s life and contribution to the City of New York, Mayor Michael Bloomberg requested that the flags on city buildings be lowered. President Obama words regarding Mr. Sutton are perhaps the most memorable, “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… Sutton is a true hero to African-Americans across the country.”


  1. Percy Sutton was instrumental in establishing a formidable African American presence in political landscape of New York. He also helped build housing developments, provided food, and education for the impoverished residents of New York City. Professor Pierre-Louis thank you for honoing Mr. Percy Sutton in this manner.

  2. Thank you for this post on Mr. Sutton. It is so important that we honor our leaders of the past so that we can continue to motivate future generations to become leaders. It is inspiring to hear of people who become successful but continue to help and serve the public. Our communities need more leaders like Mr. Sutton and stories like this will help to create them! The quote in this post really touched me and I will remember it as I fulfill my own dreams and ambitions.

  3. This was a very insightful post on Mr. Sutton. While I had heard of Mr. Sutton, I did not know of all of the accomplishments he achieved throughout his life. After reading this post, I learned of several important things that Mr. Sutton did. Among his many accomplishments, the one I found most interesting was his involvement in the first African American owned radio stations in New York City. I believe that individuals like Mr. Sutton have a tremendous impact on society and should be honored for all of their accomplishments.

  4. Mr. Sutton is symbolic of someone that worked extremely hard for his entire life and had an amazingly positive impact on this country. It is remarkable the number of accomplishments this man achieved. The fact that he served with the Tuskegee Airmen should be highlighted. There is a reason why WWII B-17 pilots wanted the Tuskegee Airmen to escort them into battle- because the Tuskegee Airmen were tenacious and dedicated, just like Mr. Sutton. Mr. Sutton was a great American and should be honored for both his military and civilian service to this country! Posted by Keith.