As told to Gina Imperato
At the height of the civil rights movement, Percy Sutton was a bona fide prince of Harlem: lawyer for Malcolm X, president of the Borough of Manhattan, a prominent and compelling presence. That's the Sutton most New Yorkers are familiar with. Less visibly (because nearly anything is less visible than Sutton's political life), he was and is a try-anything entrepreneur. Raised in Texas by parents who were educators, business owners, and community leaders, Sutton is the youngest of 15 children, all of whom went to college. As he built his New York law practice, he also built other businesses, including Inner City Broadcasting, which now owns 19 radio stations. In 1980, he bought the legendary Apollo Theater, on Harlem's 125th Street, spurring the revitalization so evident in Harlem today. More recently he co-founded the IT company Synematics, where he holds the title of chairman and, at age 86, remains involved in day-to-day operations.
When I was 12, I ran away from home by stowing away on a passenger train, and after four days I made it to New York City. The second night I slept under a signboard on 155th Street. The next morning I made a collect call to San Antonio and immediately one of my brothers-in-law was sent here to bring me home. When I got home, my family's attitude changed toward me. I had earned their respect as an adventurer. I've been an adventurer ever since. I've jumped out of airplanes at low altitudes. I've flown airplanes under bridges and done endless amounts of different tricks with airplanes--all of them daredevil things. But it all started with that passenger train.
Growing up, we had everything. We had land and a farm. We had a funeral home that spawned several businesses. Because it was segregated, we had to do everything related to the undertaking business. We made caskets. We made the clothing people would be buried in. We had an insurance business…anything related. And all the Suttons worked in one of the businesses that we had. I worked on the farm because I wanted to be a veterinarian. But they wouldn't let a black man go to veterinary school in Texas. Finally I was granted the right to go to Iowa State University. By then, I didn't want to be a veterinarian; I wanted to be a pilot. So I became a stunt pilot and toured.
In 1942, at the age of 21, I enlisted in the Army and joined the Army Air Corps. But I flunked my graduation physical. I couldn't be a pilot, so I became an intelligence officer. One of my most vivid memories is when I was dropped into Yugoslavia to find and bring back American pilots who had gone down behind enemy lines. I had assembled three people and left them at safe ground and was looking for the fourth when I was captured. I was only there a day before being rescued.
I was on leave in New York with Clark Gable. Yes, the actor. He was also an intelligence officer in the Army Air Corps, the class ahead of me. He was interested in visiting the rhythm clubs in Harlem and asked if I would take him there. I took him, and the next morning, he went to his hotel and I was headed to my hotel, the colored hotel, walking through Times Square, when I saw the love of my life. She was walking with her uncle and mother. I walked up to her uncle and asked if she was married. He said no. And I told him I was going to marry her. That was the 31st of July 1943. We were married November 5, 1943. That was the first time I married my wife, Leatrice. When I returned from the war in 1945, I came home to New York, to this very beautiful young lady, and I enrolled in law school.
I worked in a post office from 4 p.m. to midnight as a mail handler. When I got off at midnight I walked to Herald Square, where Macy's (NYSE:FD) is, and became a conductor on the D train until 8:30 in the morning. Then I reported to law school at 9:30. I kept that schedule for three years and became a lawyer. It was because of this schedule that my wife divorced me, not long after our son was born. I married another woman. After 13 months, I went back to Leatrice and married her again. I have a daughter from my second wife. And we are truly family.
After I passed the bar exam, I reentered the military as a lawyer in the Air Force. When I got out in 1953, I opened my own law office in Harlem. I always wanted to be a lawyer in Harlem. I knew I could do good and make money.
I'd seen Malcolm X preaching on the corner of 125th and Seventh Avenue a number of times. One day I walked up onto the platform where he was speaking, and when he paused, I said, "Mr. Minister. Hello, I'm your new lawyer." I represented him from that day until he was slain in 1965.
I like politics. I've always been interested in politics. I like it because it has given me an opportunity to influence what other people do. I found that to be successful, you have to be known.
I had either run for office or run someone else 11 times and failed before I was elected to a seat in the New York State Assembly in 1964. In 1965, I became the Manhattan borough president and served three terms for a total of 12 years. Now I just raise money for and advise people I like in politics.
After my time as borough president I was involved in a lot of businesses. I resumed my law practice. I sold real estate in Texas, bought an oil well in Nigeria, shipped heavy machinery from Europe to Africa. Yes, I was involved in a lot of businesses. I lost money like it was going out of style.
Inner City Broadcasting became incorporated in 1971 when one other investor, Harold Jackson, and I bought a single radio station, WLIB. It was an AM station but it came with an FM station too. A year later, we changed the name of the FM station to WBLS. In 1980, it became the No. 1 station of any kind in the country. Inner City Broadcasting has 19 stations. My son Pierre runs them now.
I got into radio because I feel if you are a people who have been injured, one of the most important things is to get ahold of the media and use it to define yourself before it defines you.
I bought the Apollo Theater in 1980 out of bankruptcy court for a quarter of a million dollars and lost $31 million. But when I look out on the street I see all of the activity and there is a great comfort in knowing that I started it. This street was dead and I was very alive. For me it has never been about the money.
I read seven newspapers in the course of a day. I don't value them all the same, but I read them all because it's good to know what other people are thinking. This is one of my recommendations to people--read, read, read.
I still practice law, mostly pro bono. I also work on my various projects and make myself available to talk. A lot of my day is consumed by my tech company, Synematics.
I'm a happy person. I'm a well-liked person. I'm a good lawyer. I challenge things. And in spite of the injuries that have been inflicted on me in my life, I manage to like people. It makes me feel just a little superior to other people who can't do that, people who are angry all of the time, who are bitter and hurt. I have been hurt but I am not hurt. I don't live a life of hurt.