Harry Sykes' broad shoulders lifted many

Lexington pioneer's broad shoulders lifted many

November 30, 2012 

Harry Sykes at his home in Lexington, KY, on Thursday, Jan. 7, 1998. For a Burdette column on how Sykes was the acting city manager when Lexington and Fayette County governments merged 25 years ago. Photo by Michelle Patterson


A brief account of Harry Sykes' life reads like an abbreviated screenplay. Born in the 1920s, he was one of 13 children of an African American sharecropper in Mississippi. He earned a college education playing basketball at Kentucky State College, now Kentucky State University, and played two years for the Harlem Globetrotters. Mr. Sykes, who died Wednesday at age 85, was a student first and an athlete second. He went on to study mathematics at the University of Kentucky, earned a fellowship to Purdue University and a National Science Foundation Fellowship to the University of Minnesota.

Mr. Sykes taught for a time at the old Dunbar High School in Lexington but in the early 1960s — a time when black people were beaten and shot for political activism — he got involved in local politics hoping, as he said, "to make a bigger difference."

He did. In 1963, he became the first black person ever elected to the old Lexington City Commission. He also became Lexington's first black city manager and chief executive officer, and, in 1967, was elected mayor pro-tem.

It is the stuff of Hollywood but Mr. Sykes was a very real person who dedicated his life to making Lexington a better place for everyone. In doing so, he made profound contributions to our community that continue to be felt today.

"He was one of those pioneers upon whose shoulders many of us now stand," said P.G. Peeples, president and CEO of the Lexington Urban League, which Mr. Sykes helped found in the 1960s. "Some stand on his shoulders and may not even realize it," Peeples added.

We offer our sympathies to Mr. Sykes' widow, Geraldine, and his children and grandchildren.

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