Dead, Percy Ellis Sutton on December 26, 2009 at the age of 89, he was a prominent black American political and business leader.
He was the highest-ranking African-American elected official in New York City when he was Manhattan borough president from 1966 to 1977, the longest tenure at that position. Born on November 24, 1920 he is the youngest of fifteen children born to Samuel Johnson Sutton and his wife, Lillian.
At age twelve, Percy stowed away on a passenger train to New York City, where he slept under a sign on 155th Street in the Harlem neighbourhood of the Manhattan borough of the city.
Ironically, his oldest sister, Lillian Sutton Taylor who was 20 years his senior, was attending Columbia Teacher’s College at the time. His oldest brother John Sutton, a food scientist who had studied under George Washington Carver, and also in Russia, was living in New York at the time Percy arrived there.
His family clearly had resources, a sense of adventure and determination during a time when many African-Americans were extremely limited in options.
Sutton was a long time leader in Harlem politics, and was a leader of the Harlem Clubhouse, also known as the “Gang of Four”.
The Clubhouse has dominated Democratic politics in Harlem since the 1960s. His allies in running the Clubhouse were New York City Mayor David Dinkins, U.S. Representative Charles Rangel, and New York Secretary of State Basil Paterson – whose son, David Paterson, became New York Governor in 2008.
He also was a life member of the Kappa Alpha Psi fraternity. He was a member of the New York State Assembly in 1965 and 1966. On September 13, 1966, he was elected Borough President of Manhattan, to fill the vacancy caused by the appointment of Constance Baker Motley to the federal bench.
He served in that post until 1977, when he ran for the Democratic nomination for New York City Mayor against Bella Abzug, a former U.S. Representative; U.S. Representative Herman Badillo; incumbent New York City Mayor Abraham Beame; New York Secretary of State Mario Cuomo; and U.S. Representative Ed Koch; Koch won the nomination and the general election.
Thanks to his parents’ emphasis on hard work and education, Percy and all of his siblings went on to earn college degrees. As each of the older siblings established themselves professionally, they would help their younger siblings financially so that they could afford school.
Although Percy attended three different prestigious universities—Prairie View Agricultural and Mechanical College, the Tuskegee Institute and the Hampton Institute—he didn’t complete his college degree.
Instead, he travelled to New York at the beginning of World War II to enlist in the U.S. Army.
In 1981, Sutton also made headlines when he and his investment partners bought the crumbling Apollo Theatre in Harlem, New York.
The theatre reopened in 1985, and boasted more than $20 million in renovations, including a cable television studio that was used to produce the variety show It’s Showtime at the Apollo.
In 1987, Sutton earned the NAACP’s Spingarn Medal for his work in media. Sutton retired in 1991, and in 1992 a non-profit foundation took over the Apollo after Sutton could no longer afford to maintain the building. It continues to run as a concert hall and national landmark.