IN REMEMBRANCE: 12-27-2009


Published: December 22, 2009
Alaina Reed-Amini, an actress and singer whose best-known characters were denizens of two of television’s celebrated addresses, “Sesame Street” and the tenement known only by its street number, “227,” died Thursday in Santa Monica, Calif. She was 63.
December 23, 2009    


The cast of “Sesame Street” in the 1980s, with Alaina Reed-Amini standing between Big Bird and Aloysius Snuffleupagus.

The cause was cancer, her publicist, Billy Laurence, said.

Through most of her career — before her marriage to Tamim Amini in 2008 — Ms. Reed-Amini was known as Alaina Reed Hall or Alaina Reed. She was an accomplished cabaret singer and musical theater performer when she arrived on “Sesame Street,” public television’s long-running children’s program, in 1976, seven years into the life of the show. She played Olivia, a photographer whose brother, Gordon (played by Roscoe Orman) was already a character on the show.

She remained in the cast until 1988, frequently performing in skits with Mr. Orman that illustrated lessons about sibling relationships. She also sang, either solo or with her “Sesame Street” neighbors, human and puppet.

In 1985, Ms. Reed-Amini was cast in “227,” a comedy series about the residents of an apartment building in Washington that focused on the character of Mary Jenkins, an engaging busybody (played by Marla Gibbs), her family and their neighbors. Ms. Reed-Amini played Rose Lee Holloway, a single neighbor and friend of Mary’s who became, at one point, the building’s landlord. While working on “227” she met and married a fellow cast member, Kevin Peter Hall. (Their characters married on the show as well.) Mr. Hall died in 1991.

Bernice Reed was born Nov. 10, 1946, in Springfield, Ohio, and attended Kent State University. She was already known as Alaina Reed when she began singing in New York nightclubs in the early 1970s, usually to glowing reviews.



“Miss Reed is a lean, willowy young woman with a gospel-based style that sometimes takes her to the edges of the Aretha Franklin idiom of pop singing but, primarily, is used to project her songs with an unusual sense of believability,” John S. Wilson wrote of her in The New York Times in 1972.

She appeared in musical theater pieces, including “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band on the Road,” an adaptation of the Beatles’ album, and William Finn’s “In Trousers,” the first of a trilogy of plays about a young gay man named Marvin. (Parts two and three became the Broadway musical “Falsettos.”) On Broadway, she appeared as a replacement cast member in the original “Chicago,” the 1977 revival of “Hair” and “Eubie!”

Ms. Reed-Amini appeared on numerous television series, among them “A Different World,” “Ally McBeal,” “Friends,” “The Drew Carey Show” and “E.R.” Her movie credits included “Death Becomes Her” and “Cruel Intentions.”

Ms. Reed-Amini’s first marriage ended in divorce. Her survivors include her husband; information about others was not available.




Published: December 26, 2009

Filed at 6:03 p.m. ET

CIUDAD JUAREZ, Mexico (AP) — Esther Chavez, a women’s rights activist who first drew attention to the brutal slayings of women in the border city of Ciudad Juarez, has died, her nephew said Saturday. She was 73.

Hector Chavez Arbizu said his aunt died of cancer on Friday and will be buried in Ciudad Juarez, where more than 100 women were strangled and their bodies dumped in the desert or vacant lots in a string of killings that began in the 1990s.

Chavez founded Casa Amiga, a shelter for female victims of violence in this city of 1.5 million across the border from El Paso, Texas.

She worked tirelessly to denounce the decade-long string of killings and to demand that the deaths be properly investigated. Most of the victims were young and many worked at border assembly factories known as maquiladoras.

Authorities in Chihuahua state initially downplayed the problem, and many of the crimes remain unresolved.

To the end of her life, Chavez remained highly critical of police efforts and said the total death toll from the wave of violence against women in the city was in the hundreds.

”The death of activist Esther Chavez represents a loss for the fight for human rights and the rule of law in this country,” the Mexican newspaper La Jornada wrote in an editorial Saturday. ”She made the problems in Chihuahua visible on the international stage.”

In 2008, Chavez won Mexico’s National Human Rights Award. And a month before she died, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights issued a ruling criticizing Mexico for a lack of diligence in investigating the slayings of 3 of the victims.

The court said it found irregularities in the probes, including the mishandling of evidence and the coercing of innocent people to confess.

The court said Mexico should pay a total of $800,000 in compensation to the victims’ families, solve the killings and fix its procedures for investigating the slayings. Mexico has agreed to be bound by the court’s rulings.

In 2005, the then-special prosecutor for the Ciudad Juarez killings, Claudia Velarde, said prosecutors had solved 80 percent of the killings, but many relatives doubt the real culprits have been caught.

While so-called ”profile” killings involving young women strangled and left in desert dumping grounds tapered off around mid-decade, Ciudad Juarez is now in the grips of a wave of drug-cartel violence that has cost about 2,000 lives in 2009.

Chavez is survived by her nephew and her brother. A memorial service was held for her Saturday.


Ms. Chavez was a voice who spoke for the forgotten women of Cuidad Juarez. A champion who refused to allow the murdered women and girls of maquilladoras to remain faceless.

May her efforts even in death, continue to bring justice and solace for the victims and their families.

Rest in peace, Ms. Chavez.

Rest in peace.



Published: December 22, 2009
Ann Nixon Cooper, the centenarian lauded by President Obama last year in his election night speech as someone who had witnessed “the heartbreak and the hope” of the past century, died Monday in Atlanta. She was 107.
Lorenzo Ciniglio/Polaris

Ann Nixon Cooper

Her death was confirmed by Carl M. Williams Funeral Directors of Atlanta. The Atlanta-Journal Constitution said Ms. Cooper died in the home she had lived in since 1938.

“This election had many firsts and many stories that will be told for generations,” Mr. Obama said on Nov. 4, 2008, in his victory speech in Grant Park in Chicago. “But one that’s on my mind tonight is about a woman who cast her ballot in Atlanta. She’s a lot like the millions of others who stood in line to make their voice heard in this election, except for one thing: Ann Nixon Cooper is 106 years old.

“She was born just a generation past slavery,” Mr. Obama continued, “a time when there were no cars on the road or planes in the sky; when someone like her couldn’t vote for two reasons — because she was a woman and because of the color of her skin.”

Ms. Cooper’s autobiography, “A Century and Some Change: My Life Before the President Called My Name,” written with Karen Grigsby Bates, is scheduled to be released in January by Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, in honor of her 108th birthday.

Ann Nixon was born on Jan. 9, 1902, in Bedford County, Tenn., near Nashville, the daughter of tenant farmers. She met her future husband, Dr. Albert Berry Cooper II, while he attended Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Atria Books said. They settled in his hometown, Atlanta, where he established a successful dental practice. He died in 1967. Of their four children, one survives, Joyce Bobo, 84. Survivors also include 15 grandchildren.

Ms. Cooper first registered to vote on Sept. 1, 1941, but because of segregation did not vote for years, The Associated Press reported.




Published: December 23, 2009
Lester Rodney, who occupied an unlikely niche in journalism — sports editor of the American Communist Party newspaper The Daily Worker — and used that platform to wage an early battle against baseball’s color barrier, died Sunday in Walnut Creek, Calif. He was 98.
December 24, 2009    

Byron LaGoy

Lester Rodney

His death was announced by his family.

Even in The Daily Worker’s heyday, during the Depression, the working classes the newspaper championed were hardly lining up at newsstands for its box scores. But the paper, published in New York City, did have a sports section, run by Mr. Rodney, who was a card-carrying member, in the parlance of his day, of both the Communist Party USA and the Baseball Writers Association of America.

In the 1930s and early ’40s, Mr. Rodney, a grandson of Jewish immigrants from Europe, became an outspoken voice among sportswriters, apart from the black press, in condemning racial discrimination in professional sports.

Running a six-day-a-week Daily Worker sports section that he introduced in 1936, more than a decade before Jackie Robinson broke the major league color barrier, Mr. Rodney pressured the baseball commissioner, Kenesaw Mountain Landis, and the major league club owners to end baseball’s racial barrier.

His columns cited the exploits of stars of the Negro leagues like Satchel Paige and Josh Gibson, and he quoted major league players and managers praising the talents of black players to buttress his argument that they offered a vast talent pool. He publicized Communist-led petition drives aimed at ending the majors’ exclusion of blacks.

“Negro soldiers and sailors are among those beloved heroes of the American people who have already died for the preservation of this country and everything this country stands for — yes, including the great game of baseball,” Mr. Rodney wrote in an open letter to Landis published in The Daily Worker in May 1942. “You, the self-proclaimed ‘Czar’ of baseball, are the man responsible for keeping Jim Crow in our National Pastime. You are the one refusing to say the word which would do more to justify baseball’s existence in this year of war than any other single thing.”

In recounting the mounting pressures baseball faced to end its color barrier, Arnold Rampersad wrote in his 1997 biography “Jackie Robinson” that “the most vigorous efforts came from the Communist press.”

Mr. Rampersad told The San Francisco Chronicle in 2005 that Mr. Rodney “was forgotten because he was a Communist.”

“But,” he added, “if Robinson was perceived by civil rights workers — and especially by Martin Luther King — as a historical turning point, anybody who facilitated the emergence of Jackie Robinson should be seen as one of the heroes of race integration.”

In his 1983 book “Baseball’s Great Experiment: Jackie Robinson and His Legacy,” Jules Tygiel wrote that The Daily Worker and Mr. Rodney “unrelentingly attacked the baseball establishment.”

Mr. Tygiel said that “the success of the Communists in forcing the issue before the American public far outweighed the negative ramifications of their sponsorship.”

Lester Rodney grew up in the Bensonhurst section of Brooklyn, became a Dodger fan, covered sports for the New Utrecht High School newspaper, and played basketball and ran track. His father was a staunch Republican who had owned a silk factory but was ruined financially by the 1929 stock market crash.

While Mr. Rodney was attending night school at New York University in the mid-1930s, a young Communist Party recruiter handed him a copy of The Daily Worker. He found its limited sports coverage to be little more than a dull representation of the Communist line, viewing athletic competition as a means of appeasing the oppressed masses. So he wrote a letter to the paper’s editor telling him to lighten up.

The editor invited him in for a chat and asked him to contribute sports articles. Mr. Rodney was soon hired as the paper’s first sports editor, at a time when the Communist Party was seeking to broaden its appeal in the United States by reflecting the interests of working-class men and women. Mr. Rodney joined the party because Daily Worker staff members were expected to do so.

“I never thought of myself as a ‘Communist sportswriter,’ ” Mr. Rodney told Irwin Silber for his 2003 biography “Press Box Red.” As he put it: “I was a sportswriter who happened to be writing for a Communist newspaper. By the time The Daily Worker was something the players might react to negatively, they knew me as a sportswriter and a person.”

After Army service in the Pacific during World War II, Mr. Rodney returned to The Daily Worker. He resigned from the Communist Party in January 1958 when the paper suspended publication, its top editors having refused to continue unwavering acceptance of the Soviet Communist Party line. (The American party later resumed putting out a newspaper under different names, the latest being The People’s Weekly World.)

Mr. Rodney moved to California and, after several years in advertising work, became the religion editor of The Long Beach Independent Press-Telegram. He retired in 1975.

He is survived by his daughter, Amy Rodney, of Santa Rosa, Calif.; his son, Ray, of Fairfax, Calif.; a granddaughter, Jessie Amanda Rodney LaGoy; and his companion, Mary Harvey. His wife, Clare, died in 2004.

Mr. Rodney looked back with pride on his long campaign against racism in sports. But he also displayed a wry side, as when he told Mr. Silber about his first days as the Daily Worker sports editor, just before the 1936 World Series between the Yankees and the New York Giants:

“I remember my first headline: ‘Giant Power Threatens Yankees,’ in 60-point railroad Gothic caps. I also remember thinking what fun it would have been if Cincinnati had won the National League pennant and the headline said, ‘Reds Power Threatens Yankees.’ ”




Published: December 26, 2009
Alice Schiller, a well-brought-up Midwestern woman who burst into tears the day her husband announced he was opening a burlesque house in Los Angeles, but who rallied to make the place — the Pink Pussycat of Hollywood — one of the most successful, celebrated and profusely feathered nightclubs of its era, died on Dec. 19 at her home in Washington. She was 95.
December 26, 2009    
Courtesy of Carole Feld

Alice Schiller surrounded by some of the Pink Pussycat dancers in the mid-1960s.

Her niece, Carole Feld, said her aunt died in her sleep. Mrs. Schiller leaves no immediate survivors.

Mrs. Schiller, who by her niece’s account never drank or smoked or swore, had not set out to own a supper club in which performers left the stage vastly lighter than when they came on. But for nearly two decades, from the early 1960s to the late 1970s, she reigned gamely as a doyenne of the diaphanous, owning and operating the Pink Pussycat with her husband, Harry.

Located near the Sunset Strip in Los Angeles, the club was a popular destination of tourists and locals alike, known for its glittering stage shows and equally glittering celebrity clientele.

It was a favorite watering hole of the Rat Pack, and for good reason. Mrs. Schiller shrewdly gave her dancers stage names like Fran Sinatra, Samya Davis Jr., Deena Martin and Peeler Lawford, and the originals soon showed up to inspect their namesakes.

The club was also internationally famous for its attached institution of higher learning, the Pink Pussycat College of Strip Tease, familiarly called the Navel Academy of the West.

With the decline of burlesque theaters in the postwar years, a wave of more respectable if scarcely less naked establishments rushed in to take their place. Perhaps the best known of these was the Pink Pussycat, which literally embodied the transition between the seamy bump and grind of the burlesque house and the upscale gentlemen’s club of today.

“It was one of a few clubs that after World War II redefined what striptease was,” Rachel Shteir, the author of “Striptease: The Untold History of the Girlie Show” (Oxford University, 2004), said in a telephone interview on Tuesday. “So these clubs really served a function.”

The Schillers’ club was tasteful — practically wholesome. Men were encouraged to bring their wives and sometimes did. Dancers took the stage in oceans of sequins, acres of rhinestones and clouds of feathers. They departed peeled, but still strategically covered by G-string and pasties, or, as Mrs. Schiller genteelly called them, “bosom bonnets.”

“I myself am an authority on beauty and glamour,” Mrs. Schiller told The Los Angeles Times in 1967. “I’ve probably glamorized 1,000 pussycats. Twenty of my pussycats married multimillionaires. One of my girls got a $2,700 tip one night. She disappeared. We heard she’d fixed her nose with some of the money, but we never saw her again.”

By day, the club was transformed into the College of Strip Tease. The Pink Pussycat was not the only American strip club to have an adult-education division, but it undoubtedly had the most distinguished faculty: Sally Marr, the noted striptease artist, was for many years its de facto chancellor, provost, dean and sole professor. (Ms. Marr’s son, the comic Lenny Bruce, sometimes appeared on the Pink Pussycat’s stage.)

Tuition was $100 for 10 sessions. The curriculum, as Time magazine reported in 1961, included “The History and Theory of the Striptease,” “The Psychology of Inhibitions,” “Applied Sensual Communication” and “Dynamic Mammary, Navel and Pelvis Rotation.”

Alice Feld was born on July 14, 1914, in Indiana Harbor, Ind.; her parents divorced when she was young. She was raised in an Orthodox Jewish household by her mother, who ran a delicatessen, and her maternal grandfather. After an early marriage that ended in divorce, Alice married Harry Schiller in the mid-1950s, and they opened a men’s clothing store in Beverly Hills.

In the late ’50s, on impulse, Mr. Schiller bought the Club Seville, a Latin dance club on Santa Monica Boulevard. The couple ran it briefly as a jazz club but made little money. One day in the very early ’60s, Mr. Schiller had a brainstorm: burlesque. Mrs. Schiller wept. Then she dried her tears and named the club. It was one of the first instances, if not the first, of the now-ubiquitous “Pink Pussycat” as a business name, her niece said.

In the late ’70s the Schillers turned the club into a discotheque renamed Peanuts. Harry Schiller died in 1982; in the late ’80s, the discotheque became Club 7969 and was run by Mrs. Schiller’s nephew. The family sold the club about two years ago.

The Pink Pussycat was also a leader in the field of distance learning. For $4.95 plus postage, nonmatriculated students could order a home-instruction kit complete with two bosom bonnets, one G-string, a rhinestone for the navel and a copy of the curriculum.

The final exam was on the honor system. Those who passed could order a Pink Pussycat diploma, signed, sealed, beribboned and suitable for framing.




Published: December 26, 2009

OSLO (AP) — A Norwegian museum official said Saturday that Knut Magne Haugland, the last of six crew members who crossed the Pacific Ocean in 1947 on board the balsa wood raft Kon-Tiki, had died. He was 92.

The director of the Kon-Tiki Museum, Maja Bauge, said that Mr. Haugland, a former Norwegian resistance fighter and explorer, died in an Oslo hospital on Friday.

Mr. Haugland, decorated by the British in World War II for helping prevent the German nuclear program from acquiring heavy water to make weapons, joined the expedition of a Norwegian anthropologist, Thor Heyerdahl, as a radio operator.

The Kon-Tiki team sailed the raft with basic equipment 4,900 miles to Polynesia from Peru in 101 days to prove Mr. Heyerdahl’s theory that ancient mariners may have migrated across ocean stretches.




Published: December 27, 2009
Percy E. Sutton, a pioneering figure who represented Malcolm X as a young lawyer and became one of the nation’s most prominent black political and business leaders, died in a Manhattan nursing home on Saturday, his family said. He was 89.
Paul Hawthorne/Getty Images

Percy E. Sutton in 2005. More Photos »

December 28, 2009    

Vernon Smith/Scope

Percy E. Sutton served as Manhattan borough president and was Malcolm X’s lawyer. More Photos >

Entering politics in the early 1950s, Mr. Sutton rose from the Democratic clubhouses of Harlem to become the longest-serving Manhattan borough president and, for more than a decade, the highest-ranking black elected official in New York City.

Mr. Sutton, whose passion for civil rights was inherited from his father, was arrested as a Freedom Rider in Mississippi and Alabama in the 1960s, yet once described himself as “an evolutionist rather than a revolutionist” in matters of race. “You ought always to keep the lines of communication open with those with whom you disagree,” he said.

He was the senior member of the group of prominent Harlem politicians who became known, sometimes derisively, as the Gang of Four. The other three were David N. Dinkins, New York’s first black mayor; Representative Charles B. Rangel; and Basil A. Paterson, who was a state senator and New York’s secretary of state. Mr. Sutton was also a mentor to Mr. Paterson’s son, Gov. David A. Paterson.

“It was Percy Sutton who talked me into running for office, and who has continued to serve as one of my most valued advisers ever since,” Governor Paterson said in a statement on Saturday night.

In a statement on Sunday, President Obama called Mr. Sutton “a true hero to African-Americans in New York City and around the country.”

Mr. Sutton was the first seriously regarded black candidate for mayor when he ran in 1977. But after he finished fifth in a seven-way Democratic primary, his supporters saw the loss as a stinging rebuke of his campaign’s strenuous efforts to build support among whites. Still, Mr. Dinkins, who was elected in 1989, called Mr. Sutton’s failed bid indispensable to his own success.

“I stand on the shoulders of Percy Ellis Sutton,” he later said.

Mr. Sutton’s business empire included, over the years, radio stations, cable television systems and national television programs. Another business invested in Africa. Still another sold interactive technology to radio stations.

Mr. Sutton had an immaculately groomed beard and mustache, tailored clothing and a sonorous voice that prompted a nickname, “wizard of ooze.” Associates called him “the chairman,” a nickname more to his liking.

Percy Ellis Sutton, the last child in a family of 15 children, was born on Nov. 24, 1920, in San Antonio and grew up on a farm nearby in Prairie View, Tex. His father, Samuel Johnson Sutton, born in the last days of slavery, was the principal of a segregated high school in San Antonio. His mother, Lillian, was a teacher.

The 12 children who survived into adulthood went to college, with the older ones giving financial and moral support to the younger. (One of the brothers, Oliver C. Sutton, became a State Supreme Court justice in Manhattan.)

His father was an early civil rights activist who farmed, sold real estate and owned a mattress factory, a funeral home and a skating rink — in addition to being a full-time educator.

Percy milked the cows and sometimes helped his father deliver milk to the poor, riding in the same Studebaker that was used for funerals.

At 12, he stowed away on a passenger train to New York, where he slept under a sign on 155th Street. Far from being angry, his family regarded him as an adventurer, he later said.

From an early age, he bristled at prejudice. At 13, while passing out N.A.A.C.P. leaflets in an all-white neighborhood, he was beaten by a policeman.

Mr. Sutton attended Prairie View A & M, as well as Tuskegee in Alabama and Hampton University in Virginia, without earning a degree. During college, he took up stunt-flying on the barnstorming circuit, but gave it up after a friend crashed.

When World War II began, he tried to enlist in Texas but was turned away. He finally enlisted in New York, and served as an intelligence officer with the Tuskegee Airmen, the famed all-black unit of the Army Air Forces. He won combat stars in the Italian and Mediterranean theaters.

After the war, Mr. Sutton entered Columbia Law School on the G.I. Bill on the basis of his solid college grades, but transferred to Brooklyn Law School because he worked two jobs — at a post office from 4 p.m. until midnight, then as a subway conductor until 8:30 in the morning. He reported to law school at 9:30. This schedule continued for three years until he graduated.

The punishing pace so annoyed his wife, the former Leatrice O’Farrell, that she divorced him in 1950 — only to remarry him in 1952. In between, he married and divorced Eileen Clark.

Mr. Sutton is survived by his wife, Leatrice; a son from their marriage, Pierre; a daughter from his second marriage, Cheryl Lynn Sutton; his sister, Essie Mae Sutton of New York; and four grandchildren.

December 27, 2009    

Chester Higgins Jr./The New York Times

Mr. Sutton, center, with David N. Dinkins, left, and Charles B. Rangel at a fund-raiser for Mr. Dinkins’s campaign for mayor in 1989. More Photos >


In Harlem, Reflections on the Life of Percy Sutton (December 28, 2009)

Times Topics: Percy E. Sutton

December 28, 2009    


Mr. Sutton with Betty Shabazz, Malcolm X’s widow, in 1965. More Photos >

After law school, Mr. Sutton made what he called “a major miscalculation” — enlisting in the Air Force because he mistakenly thought he had failed the bar exam.

He served in the Korean War, and in 1953 opened a law practice in Harlem. The initial going was tough; he had to take extra jobs, one of which involved scrubbing floors.

Mr. Sutton threw himself into the civil rights movement, representing more than 200 people arrested in protests in the South. He heard Malcolm X preaching at 125th Street and Seventh Avenue and introduced himself, telling the activist that he was his new lawyer.

Mr. Sutton represented Malcolm X beyond his assassination in 1965, when cemeteries refused his body. Mr. Sutton arranged for burial in Westchester County.

“Had it not been for Percy, I don’t know where Malcolm would have been buried,” Mr. Dinkins said.

In the 1950s, Mr. Sutton worked in political campaigns, both for others and for himself. He lost seven times in 11 years in challenges to established Democrats for a State Assembly seat, finally winning by a slim margin in 1964.

In 1966, the Manhattan borough president, Constance Baker Motley, was appointed to a federal judgeship, and the City Council chose Mr. Sutton to replace her. He was elected that fall to serve the remaining three years of her term, then was re-elected twice, in 1969 and 1973. When the Beame administration, engulfed in the fiscal crisis, could not come up with the $20,000 needed to expand the New York City Marathon into a five-borough race in 1976, Mr. Sutton solicited $25,000 from Lewis and Jack Rudin, the real estate executives..

In 1973, Mr. Sutton threw his support to Abraham D. Beame, who faced a strong challenge from Representative Herman Badillo. Mr. Sutton hoped that, in return, Mr. Beame would support him in 1977 in the race for mayor of New York.

Mr. Sutton saw his path to victory as combining minority support with that of the white liberals and organization Democrats who had elevated Mr. Beame. But the mayor delayed making a decision on running for re-election, causing Mr. Sutton to tell The New York Times, “It’s rather castrating to be waiting on others for your future.”

Mr. Beame finally decided to run again, and Mr. Sutton embraced a strategy of appealing to whites by taking strong anti-crime stands and championing white ethnic neighborhoods. But polls suggested that many New Yorkers saw mainly the color of his skin. This, to Mr. Sutton, was “the most disheartening, deprecating, disabling experience.”

As the Democratic primary grew more crowded, with seven candidates running, Mr. Sutton eventually switched tactics and tried to shore up his black support. It was not enough, though the eventual victor, Edward I. Koch, later called Mr. Sutton “one of the smartest people I have met in politics or outside of politics.”

Mr. Sutton blamed the news media as much as his opponents for his defeat. “It’s racism pure and simple,” he declared.

Mr. Sutton began investing in media companies in 1971, while he was Manhattan borough president, and he was part of a group that bought The New York Amsterdam News, New York’s largest black newspaper. Later that year, the same group’s purchase of an AM station, WLIB, made it the first black-owned radio station in New York.

Critics said the borough president was using the weekly to further his own political career, but he insisted he wanted to “liberate” blacks by expanding their influence in the media.

(Skeptics could not help noting that an Amsterdam News writer wrote that he had never seen “a more diligent or competent public official” than Mr. Sutton.)

Mr. Sutton sold his stake in the paper in 1975, calling it “a political liability.”

In 1974, he and his investors bought WBLS-FM, and the group, Inner City Broadcasting, grew to own, at various times, 18 radio stations in other cities and cable franchises in Queens and Philadelphia.

In 1981, Inner City, of which Mr. Sutton was chairman, bought the Apollo, the celebrated Harlem theater, at a bankruptcy sale for $225,000. He presided over a $20 million renovation, which included building a cable television studio used to produce the syndicated television program “It’s Showtime at the Apollo.” The theater reopened in 1985.

In 1992, a nonprofit foundation took over the theater after Mr. Sutton said he could no longer afford to run it. Some years later, Mr. Sutton became a defendant in a lawsuit by the state attorney general, Dennis C. Vacco, that accused the foundation, of which Mr. Rangel was chairman, of failing to collect $4 million from Inner City. Mr. Sutton denied wrongdoing, and the suit was eventually settled. When Inner City began producing a program called “Showtime in Harlem” in 2002, the theater accused the company of violating the Apollo trademark and filed suit.

Feuds and controversies materialized in Mr. Sutton’s political career, as well. There was bitterness between him and Mr. Badillo over the 1977 mayoral race — when the supporters of each accused the other of splitting the black and Hispanic vote — as well as the 1985 race, when Mr. Sutton and other Harlem leaders refused to endorse Mr. Badillo. They instead backed Assemblyman Herman D. Farrell Jr.

In 1970, Mr. Sutton was criticized when he helped Mr. Rangel unseat Representative Adam Clayton Powell Jr. Ebony magazine said Mr. Sutton’s actions “did little to endear him to blacks in New York and across the nation.”

Mr. Sutton sometimes recalled how his father would not let his children play in a segregated San Antonio park on the one day of the year that they were allowed in — on June 19, the anniversary of Texas’s implementation of the Emancipation Proclamation.

But Mr. Sutton also remembered something else he had learned from his father: “Suffer the hurts, but don’t show the anger, because if you do, it will block you from being able to effectively do anything to remove the hurts.”




Saying Goodbye to a Godfather of Black Politicians

Ozier Muhammad/The New York Times

Leatrice Sutton, with her son Pierre Sutton, listened to tributes to her late husband, Percy Sutton, at Riverside Church in New York.

// //

Published: January 6, 2010

They filed one after another into Riverside Church, mayors and governors and renowned preachers and musicians, all come to pay their respects to that most unusual product of our nation’s history, a son of a former slave who became father to modern Harlem and godfather to generations of black politicians. 


Times Topics: Percy E. Sutton

Percy Ellis Sutton, who died last month at age 89, never rose higher than Manhattan borough president, an office he held for 11 years. But in a more racially enlightened age, speaker after speaker noted in eulogies on Wednesday, this stylish and gifted politician well might have been commemorated as a former mayor or governor.

“I’m a proud son of this city, and Percy Sutton was a father to so many,” Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. told an audience that filled every seat in every pew on the grand floor and balconies.

Mr. Holder pointed, jabbed really, at Mr. Sutton’s cherry-oak coffin, which lay garlanded in purple flowers. “Without him, there would be no me.”

For three hours on this cold winter day, Riverside Church, with its soaring gothic reaches, became the Westminster Abbey of black political royalty: Gov. David A. Paterson, Representative Charles B. Rangel, former Mayor David N. Dinkins, the Revs. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton and a host of City Council and Assembly representatives. More than a few white notables mixed among them, from Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg to Senator Charles E. Schumer and former Gov. Mario M. Cuomo. They exchanged confidences and laughs and bowed to a master of their game.

Basil Paterson, the black former deputy mayor and secretary of state for New York who was a political partner of Mr. Sutton’s for many decades and one of Harlem’s famous Gang of Four (together with Mr. Dinkins and Mr. Rangel), came stepping up to the pulpit with a bounce that belied his eight decades.

“When I came down the aisle, it was like old home week,” Mr. Paterson said, smiling at his old cronies and at Mr. Sutton’s vast family, who filled two dozen rows of pews. “I am known as the governor’s father. But before that I was known as Percy Sutton’s friend.”

Mr. Sutton and his friends embody a history quickly passing into shadow. He was a Tuskegee Airman and intelligence officer during World War II, a man pushed north by the Jim Crow diaspora, a civil rights activist jailed in the cruelest prisons of the South, and a lawyer to Malcolm X when that was nothing to boast of, even in black circles. He fought to open City University to blacks.

In time, he became a grandee in the most sophisticated and influential black political club in New York City.

And he turned himself into a businessman, some days walking from bank to bank to bank in search of loans. He became a millionaire, owner of what were at one time the city’s two most influential black radio stations, the WBLS hit-maker on FM and the intensely, incessantly political WLIB on AM.

“He represented Malcolm, an act of defiance and dignity, he marched for civil rights, he embraced Mandela,” Mr. Jackson said. “To buy WLIB, he had to go to 62 banks. He never stopped.”

To his family, not least his 12 brothers and sisters (a preternaturally accomplished group that produced judges, civil rights leaders, Ph.D.’s and legislators in several states), he was known as Uncle Jimmy, who came back many summers to relax on the family farm outside San Antonio. But to his friends up north, he was known simply as The Chairman.

With his pencil-thin mustache and slow-burning growl of a voice, he seemed to glory in the daily act of politics, whether shaking hands on 125th Street or telling stories to fifth graders at Public School 166 on the Upper West Side in the late ’60s.

“Most elected officials when I was growing up, they were kind of suspicious,” Governor Paterson recalled in a phone interview after the funeral. “His attitude was, if you go out and run for office, and want people to know you well, then be happy when they did!”

Malcolm X’s daughter, Attalah Shabazz spoke of his service to her father. After Malcolm X was assassinated, and no cemetery would bury him, Mr. Sutton found a graveyard.

“Percy kept his oath to keep us from harm,” she said. “And always with that wonderful grace.” Then she imitated his flirtatious growl, punctuated by a typical greeting: “ ‘How are you doing today, laaaady Shabazz?’ ”

Mr. Sutton’s funeral was a reminder of when Harlem defined the black political solar system.

And yet theirs was a world circumscribed. These black political aristocrats possessed law degrees and recited poetry and traveled the world, but they returned to a neighborhood without basic services. Basil Paterson recalled driving to a distant white neighborhood just to find a drugstore to fill a prescription.

In the end of the end came goodbye. Roscoe Brown, a commander in the Tuskegee Airmen and a college president and a touch unsteady, saluted his old friend and presented Leatrice, the widow, with a folded flag.

A granddaughter danced and laid a white rose atop his casket; Pierre Sutton, the son, whispered: “My father, we will miss you. Lie down in peace.”

And a flutist played and the family lined up, and soon enough the funeral procession moved down the hill from Riverside Church to 125th Street, the grand boulevard of Harlem.




Humanitarian was ‘a force of nature’


Dec. 28, 2009, 7:09AM

Mitchell archive

Cynthia Woods Mitchell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2002.

Cynthia Woods Mitchell, patron of the arts, impassioned environmentalist and avid historical preservationist, died Sunday morning surrounded by family at her home in The Woodlands. She was 87.

Reared by a single mother in Depression-era New York City, Mitchell embraced a wide range of causes and interests, ranging from the Boy and Girl Scouts to Trinity Episcopal Church and Texas Children’s Hospital.

Survivors include her husband, oilman-real estate developer George Mitchell, and 10 children.

“She was a force of nature,” the Mitchell family said in a prepared statement. “Our family will always remember the dynamic, colorful person that she was: intelligent, altruistic, totally original and hilariously funny. Her kindnesses are remembered by people she barely knew.”

Mitchell came to Houston with her twin sister, Pamela Loomis, in 1939 to study literature, art and psychology at the University of Houston. She met her future husband two years later while traveling by train from College Station to Houston. The couple were married on Halloween 1943.

George Mitchell founded Mitchell Energy and Development in 1946. In 1952, defying common oil business wisdom, he bought 10,000 acres in a North Texas region near Bridgeport known as “the wildcatter’s graveyard.” In little more than a year, the fledgling company had drilled 13 consecutive producing development wells and placed 300,000 acres under lease.

Galveston projects

It was among the first of many daring moves that propelled the company into the nation’s big-time natural gas business.

In the mid-1970s, Mitchell launched plans for The Woodlands, an innovative planned community 30 miles north of Houston. Cynthia Mitchell picked the new development’s name.

Together, Mitchell and her husband moved to breathe new life into economically bypassed Galveston, George Mitchell’s hometown.

Beginning with the 1871 League Building in 1976, the Mitchells restored 17 iron-front buildings in the island city’s historic downtown. Among their projects were conversion of the Leon and H. Blum Building into the luxurious, European-styled Tremont Hotel. On the beachfront, they bought and restored the Galvez Hotel. On the Gulf and Galveston Bay, they built two new hotels, the San Luis and the Harbor House.

“Mrs. Mitchell brought style and sophistication to all the family’s work to preserve historic Galveston,” said Dwayne Johnson, Galveston Historic Foundation executive director.

Mitchell’s interest in history and historic preservation manifested itself on the national level in the 1990s when she became a board member of the National Trust for Historic Preservation. The group later presented her its highest honor, the Crowninshield Award.

Community support

Mitchell’s interests and philanthropies extended to arts and sciences. Serving on the board of the World Wildlife Fund, she underwrote exhibits featuring endangered animals at the Houston Museum of Natural Science.

At the University of Houston, Mitchell underwrote a distinguished authors’ program. She was a benefactor of the Houston Symphony, Houston Grand Opera and Houston Ballet.

She was instrumental in creating UH’s Cynthia Woods Mitchell Center for the Arts.

UH President Renu Khator said the arts center has helped position the arts as one of the university’s priorities.

“Just as she lived a productive and creative life with extraordinary commitment to our community, she has left a legacy that will fuel creativity for future generations in our community and beyond,” Khator said.

Mitchell was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease in 2002. It was a diagnosis she met with “optimism and dignity,” said family spokeswoman Dancie Ware.

In the wake of medical bad news, the Mitchell family poured resources into research to find a cure for the degenerative disease. Created were the George and Cynthia Mitchell Center for Neurodegenerative Diseases at the University of Texas Medical Branch-Galveston and the George P. and Cynthia Mitchell Center for Research on Alzheimer’s Disease and Related Brain Disorders at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston. The family also supported research at Baylor College of Medicine.

Isle memorial service

“Cynthia Woods Mitchell filled the most demanding roles, from parent to civic entrepreneur, beautifully and with sparkling intellect,” said Dr. Larry Kaiser, UT Health Science Center president.

“She provided generously for the health of future generations by giving to medical research. She brought a sense of optimism as well as common sense and business acumen to the most daunting project and in all that she did, she defined womanly grace.”

The funeral will be private, but there will be a memorial service Jan. 4 at 2 p.m. at Trinity Episcopal Church in Galveston, followed by a reception at the Tremont House.

The Houston Symphony is scheduled to play a special concert celebrating the life of Cynthia Woods Mitchell April 29 at the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion in The Woodlands.


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