VIA: New York Times
He was hailed as Harlem’s king or its chairman, the eloquent author of some of its prouder moments, the dapper mentor to its sons and daughters. As news of Percy E. Sutton’s death spread on Sunday, the sadness spanned generations and city blocks, from Mr. Sutton’s home on 135th Street to the doorstep of the Apollo, that cultural heart of Harlem that Mr. Sutton jolted to life.
“He was a renaissance black man,” said Philip Bulgar, 45, an assistant manager at Manna’s Soul Food Restaurant, summing up a life too rich for anyone to fully recall. That did not stop everyone from trying. “They don’t make too many brothers like that anymore,” Mr. Bulgar said.
Mr. Sutton died on Saturday at age 89. He had been a Tuskegee Airman, Malcolm X’s lawyer, the Manhattan borough president and a media mogul.
On Sunday, Harlem’s residents sprinkled that legend with more personal recollections of Mr. Sutton: as a neighbor giving advice, a quiet guest at a funeral, a stylish fixture on the streets of Harlem, who dressed down only when he got to his country house and sat on his tractor.
Several people about Mr. Sutton’s age said they were too sad to talk. Betty Harvey, who lived in Mr. Sutton’s building, said she remembered him on a megaphone during the blackout of 1977, bringing people together by telling them to direct traffic. “He did all that he could,” she said.
Gabrielle Baker, 52, who attended services at the Abyssinian Baptist Church on Sunday, said Mr. Sutton was part of the generation of leaders who built Harlem.
“When they start to go,” she said, “it’s almost like our families are passing.”
Another parishioner, Cliff Simmons, 53, said Mr. Sutton’s strides as a media baron — he owned WLIB, the first black-owned radio station in the city — “gave me a sense of my African consciousness.”
On the station, “historians and politicians came on and told us about our history,” Mr. Simmons said. “I know a lot of people, it really helped change their lives.”
Mr. Sutton’s signature achievement might have been reviving the Apollo, which his company bought for $225,000 at a bankruptcy sale in 1981, and then spent $20 million restoring. On Sunday, the Apollo’s marquee carried a message for him: “We are forever grateful.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton said Mr. Sutton had not seen the restoration of the theater as a cultural service, but rather as a boon to the neighborhood. “The Apollo became the centerpiece of the economic regeneration of Harlem,” Mr. Sharpton said.
And Mr. Sutton relished the role of savior. Billy Mitchell, the Apollo’s tour guide and resident historian, said Mr. Sutton could not walk on 125th Street without being stopped by people. “He’d drop these pearls of wisdom on them,” Mr. Mitchell said.
Other moments, Mr. Sutton shied away from the spotlight. Mr. Sharpton said Mr. Sutton would show up unannounced at rallies — “in the midst of controversies, when other people wouldn’t show” — and then have to be dragged to the dais from the back of the room. “I’ve never seen anyone with more style and grace,” Mr. Sharpton said.
For more than 40 years, Mr. Sutton lived in Lenox Terrace, a luxury apartment complex on 135th Street, a building where his friends David A. Paterson and Charles B. Rangel also had apartments. His neighbors included Antoinette Benton and her sons, including Derrel, now 21.
In the fourth grade, Derrel was asked to write about someone he looked up to. While his classmates wrote about entertainers, Derrel picked Mr. Sutton, who used to pay him and his brothers $50 each to shovel his car out from the snow.
Ms. Benton, a single mother, used to see Mr. Sutton in the elevator. She recalled that he always used to encourage her, and that Mr. Sutton always told her how good her sons were.