Percy Ellis Sutton, the late media mogul, entrepreneur, WWII fighter, and pioneering civil rights champion, is celebrated today for teaching the model for multi-generational wealth.
“Every time a Black politician walks in a legislature hallway, that’s Percy Sutton,” Rev. Al Sharpton said during Sutton’s eulogy in 2009. “Every time a black radio station plays black music, that’s Percy Sutton. Every time talk radio registers voters and mobilizes those that fight for justice, that’s Percy Sutton. He took the megaphones out of our hands and gave us a radio station…he made us important.”
Born in 1920, Sutton grew up the youngest of 15 children on a farm in San Antonio, Texas, where his introductions to activism and Black entrepreneurship paved the way for his life’s work.
His mother and father, Lillian and Samuel Johnson Sutton, were early civil rights activists who farmed, sold real estate and owned a mattress factory, a funeral home, and a skating rink—all while Samuel worked full-time as a principal at the all-Black Phyllis Wheatley High School and Lillian an educator. Their home now serves the community as a nonprofit called the Hope House Ministries.
“My father was involved in a variety of businesses, and invested his money in others. Not all of his investments were successful. He used to often say that he got involved in enterprises in which he had the money and his partner had the experience, and by the time he left the venture, his partner would have the money and he would have the experience,” Sutton told BLACK ENTERPRISE in 2016.
He continued: “But our family was never without money–even during the Depression, when he had to sell some of his holdings. He made sure that his family would have access to opportunities, even though we didn’t have social access in the segregated South. Another one of his practices was to give money to Black organizations that helped those he called ‘people with broken wings.’ Many of his principles–diversification, giving back to the community, showing employees and associates respect–I held in my personal, political, and business life.”
In his father’s strides toward equality, young Sutton helped educate others about racism. He experienced his first encounter with police brutality at age 13. He was beaten by an officer while passing out NAACP pamphlets in an all-white neighborhood.
A civil rights activist in practice
A graduate of Prairie View A&M, Tuskegee Institute, and Hampton University, Sutton enlisted in the armed forces during World War II, serving with the legendary Tuskegee Airmen. After the war ended, he left with his combat stars to pursue law. He enrolled at Columbia Law School and later graduated Brooklyn Law School.
Sutton served in the Air Force, becoming the first Black Judge Advocate General (JAG). In 1953, he established a Harlem-based law firm in partnership with his brother, Oliver Sutton, and George Covington. He brought his vigor as an attorney for Malcolm X, and, after his death, his family for several decades.
In 1964, Sutton won a New York State Assembly seat, and in 1966 he replaced Manhattan Borough President Constance Baker Motley when she was appointed as a federal judge. Following his second reelection, he became the longest-serving Manhattan borough president and highest-ranking Black elected official for more than a decade. He also made history as the first Black man to run for mayor of New York City in 1977.
In the 1970s, Sutton was a member of a group of Black politicians from Harlem dubbed the “Gang of Four.”
A media mogul in the making
As a descendant of entrepreneurs, Sutton, also known as “The Chairman,” purchased a mom-and-pop radio station in New York City in 1972 for $1.9 million and transformed Inner City Broadcasting Corp. into a multimillion-dollar broadcasting and media giant. His model of R&B, talk radio, and community service would be replicated nationwide.
Inner City owned several radio stations across the country, including WLIB-AM and WBLS-FM. At one point, WBLS was the number-one radio station in the country. Inner City became a mainstay on the BE 100s for more than two decades, providing a myriad of opportunities for African Americans in the entertainment industry.
In 1981, the company resurrected Harlem’s 125th street by saving the famed Apollo Theater, and went on to to produce the hit television show, It’s Showtime at the Apollo. Sutton continued to develop new media ventures as well as begin the process of handing the reins of his business empire to the next generation.
At the time of Sutton’s death, then-President Barack Obama recognized him as a public servant who made the rise of countless young African Americans possible.
“I knew the horror stories of the dissolution of family businesses and the erosion of family wealth because of poor succession and estate planning. I didn’t want that to happen to my family. I decided that i was going to take a decade to train the next generation and pass on my management philosophy,” Sutton explained.
Sutton died December 26, 2009. He was 89. The beloved neighborhood park in East Harlem was named in his honor in 2021.