Harry Sykes, who for decades was a pioneering civil rights and government leader in Lexington and who also was an educator and a former professional basketball player, died Wednesday.
He was 85.
"He was an achiever; he was a trailblazer; he opened a lot of doors," said the Rev. T. H. Peoples Jr., pastor at Pleasant Green Missionary Baptist Church, where Mr. Sykes was a longtime member and vice chairman of trustees.
"Lexington has lost a real citizen," Peoples said.
Lexington Mayor Jim Gray said Mr. Sykes "adopted Lexington" and demonstrated citizenship and leadership in every sense of the word.
"From the (Harlem) Globetrotters to city council and church and community, he inspired and guided and taught us every step of the way," Gray said.
Mr. Sykes was born in Mississippi, where his father was a sharecropper and minister, and attended a one-room school. After the family moved to Chicago in the 1940s, Mr. Sykes became a star athlete and won a scholarship to Kentucky State College, now Kentucky State University. After a successful college career, he played two seasons with the famed Harlem Globetrotters. He left basketball to become a teacher at the old Dunbar High School in Lexington. In the early 1960s, he turned to local politics hoping "to make a bigger difference," as he once put it.
Mr. Sykes first won a seat on the old Lexington City Commission in 1963 — the first black person ever elected to that panel — and he served four consecutive terms. He also served as city manager and chief executive officer, and he was elected mayor pro-tem in 1967.
In 1971, Mr. Sykes became the first black candidate for mayor of Lexington, ultimately losing to Foster Pettit.
On Wednesday, Pettit recalled Mr. Sykes as "a wonderful friend who was always willing to help the community in any way he could." Mr. Sykes worked in Lexington's transition to a merged form of government, Pettit said.
Tom Underwood, another city commission member from the 1960s, also praised Mr. Sykes.
"I think it was important to have Harry on the city commission during that period of integration in the 1960s," Underwood said. "I served with him all eight years he was in city government. He did an outstanding job and I considered him a close friend."
As both a political leader and a teacher, Mr. Sykes urged people to work hard and find success despite the racial divide of the time. He told black students at Dunbar that although "society has blocked you out ... that cannot always be. You've got a lifetime to live."
Mr. Sykes also became a founder of the Lexington-Fayette County Urban League, and he served as its first board chairman.
"He was one of those pioneers upon whose shoulders many of us now stand; some stand on his shoulders and may not even realize it," said P.G. Peeples, president and CEO of the Lexington Urban League. "He came along in a difficult time that required a certain temperament to be in the public arena. I would liken it to the temperament Jackie Robinson had to have."
Peeples said a black leader in that era could find himself in "no man's land," rejected by both the white community and by some in the black community.
"Harry had the temperament to make it work," Peeples said. "He was a good man; he was passionate about this community; he put a lot on the line back in the days when African-Americans who were public leaders were being killed."
Mr. Sykes was honored with a reception at Mayor Jim Gray's office last month for his years of service. At that time, Joe Graves, who also served on the city commission in the 1960s, said Mr. Sykes' quiet community leadership helped Lexington get through the turbulent 1960s, when civil rights tensions here ran high.
Graves noted that he passed out election literature for Mr. Sykes at a white precinct during the 1963 city commission election. More than a few white voters were unhappy to receive campaign brochures for a black candidate, he said.
Later, when city commissioners considered electing Mr. Sykes as mayor pro tem, an influential white resident called City Hall and urged them against the step, Graves said. Mr. Sykes was elected anyway.
"In 1968, after the assassinations of Robert Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King ... I believe the fact that we had Harry Sykes as vice mayor made a big difference," an emotional Graves said Wednesday. "People respected him and cared for him. He was a class act."
Mr. Sykes is survived by his wife of 61 years, Geraldine Sykes, four sons and one daughter.
Funeral arrangements are incomplete. Smith and Smith Funeral Home is in charge of arrangements.
Jim Warren: (859) 231-3255.