By Percy E. Sutton (1920-2009) Chairman of the Executive Board Greater Harlem Chamber of Commerce
I remember the so-called “Harlem riots or disorder,” in 1964, when I was a regular programming participant on radio station WLIB-AM in Harlem. 1later was able to gain a commitment from the owners to buy both radio stations, WLIB-AM and WLIB-FM. My true and unfettered love of Harlem goes back to 1945, when I came back home to Harlem after surviving combat duty in Europe with the famed Tuskegee Airmen during World War II.
But the Harlem of my adulthood has been much happier than the Harlem of my childhood. I remember coming here as a 12-year-old runaway who had boarded a passenger train from San Antonio, Texas, to St. Louis, Missouri, and then boarded a freight train to New York City, and ended up—after three days at the 135th Street YMCA—no longer a bodacious 12-year-old, but a frightened, young boy with only two dollars left for food and lodging, and a burning desire to get back home to the horses, cows, ducks, dogs, howling coyotes, cotton, corn, sugar cane, and mesquite trees on the family farm in San Antonio, Texas.
In 1953, I worked from 4 p.m. to midnight in the post office, and from 12:30 a.m. until 8:30 a.m., I was a conductor on the “D” train of the IND Subway system; then on to Columbia University for classes at 9:30 a.m. On weekends, from my home in Harlem, l went to work as a waiter at Lundy’s, the famous fish house in Sheepshead Bay. Late at night I found time to read, digest, and write book reviews to sell to other students.
If you are old enough, you may remember me in the ignominy of my dismissal from my position as conductor when I, half-asleep from long hours of work and study, opened the wrong doors of the “D” train at 59th Street and emptied the passengers out onto the normally unused center platform, from which they could not exit without help from my supervisors.
Luckily, I had passed the exam for subway changebooth operator, so within days of my dismissal as a conductor, I was assigned as a lunch relief clerk in theIND Subway System. This new opportunity permitted me to study in the booth until the wee hours of the morning, unless interrupted by a subway passenger needing change or directions.
Now a Harlemite, I began to evolve. From my home base in Harlem, I attended graduate school and law school and became Minister Malcolm X’s lawyer. I was also lawyer for Henry Winston of the Communist Party USA, and other challenged and disenchanted people who dared to fight back against the indignities and injustices inflicted upon Black folk in that era. The 1953 to 1965 period of representing Minister Malcolm X was an exciting, demanding, and sometimes frightening period of my life in Harlem, and it all ended by Minister Malcolm X being slaughtered in l965 by people he helped and trusted.
It was during this period with Malcolm X that I became president of the Harlem Branch of the NAACP, and in l961, in the earlier days of the modern-day Civil Rights struggle, I, with the help of Dr. Eugene Callander, went from my home base in Harlem to Mississippi and was arrested and jailed in Jackson, Mississippi for using a “whites only” urinal at the Jackson, Mississippi airport. Once out of jail, 1 participated in more Freedom Rides, more sit-ins at lunch counters, and other forms of challenges to the American power structure. All of these actions I took with the support of my family and friends in Harlem and San Antonio.
I remember the so-called “Harlem riots or disorder,” in 1964 when I was a regular programming participant on radio station WLIB-AM in Harlem. 1 later was able to gain a commitment from the owners to buy both radio stations, WLIB-AM and WLIB-FM. It took eight years from the time of the owner’s commitment to sell the radio stations to me and my colleagues for us to raise the money to buy the stations. Yet, within nine years of commencing our operation of both stations, in 1972, WLIB-FM, had become WBLS-FM and the number-one radio station in all of America, not just the number-one Black station.
Another interesting experience that played such a large role in my life as a Harlemite was the rescuing and restructuring of the Apollo Theater. I remember being saddened by the closed and abandoned Apollo Theater on 125th Street. As chairman of the Inner City Broadcasting Corporation, I and my colleagues at Inner City rescued the Apollo from its grave in bankruptcy court; and with the help of Congressman Charles Rangel, Mayor David Dinkins, Governor Mario Cuomo and local public officials, restructured the Apollo to a state-of-the-art facility with a weekly television show, It’s Showtime At The Apollo, and sent music, dance, song, and comedy from the Apollo in Harlem to cities and towns throughout the nation and beyond.
The Apollo venture resulted in a loss of $31 million dollars to the Inner City Broadcasting Corporation and to me, personally. lt also resulted in media-sponsored falsifications and indignities to which Congressman Rangel and I were subjected without justification. No recollection of my experiences at the Apollo should be mentioned without the statement of fact that the restored, reopened, and reactivated Apollo Theater is publicly recognized as the catalyst for the economic recovery of the 125th Street corridor and, indeed, much of Harlem itself.
Now, dear reader, perhaps you understand how a country boy named Percy Sutton from a farm in San Antonio, Texas wakes up every morning at home on 135th Street, and can say that Harlem to me is a dream come true, and l shall always remember Harlem.