Kevin Sykes was trying to get something out of a closet when he stumbled across a flier from one of his father’s political campaigns.
The younger Sykes was in high school at the time. He knew that his father, Harry Sykes, had done a lot for the city of Lexington. But it wasn’t until he read that flier from the 1970s that Kevin Sykes understood the impact of his father’s legacy.
“On that flier, it listed all of his accomplishments,” Kevin Sykes said. “I remember just sitting down and crying. Because it hit me at that moment — all of the things that he did and all of the things that he tried to accomplish. I had a whole new respect for a man I already had a tremendous amount of respect for.”
Kevin Sykes spoke Friday during a special ceremony at the Family Care Center for the dedication of the renaming of Red Mile Place off Versailles Road to Harry Sykes Way, in honor of the city’s first black city commissioner, mayor pro tem and vice mayor. The Family Care Center and other city services for youth and families are on Harry Sykes Way. Sykes, who was a teacher and a coach before his career in city government, was a teacher first, Mayor Jim Gray said at Friday’s ceremony.
It was fitting that the city took a moment to honor its civil rights pioneers just days before the country pauses to remember Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. on Monday, Gray said.
“As we prepare to honor the legacy of Dr. Martin Luther King, and all that he did for our country, today we are recognizing the accomplishments of a man whose leadership and service made Lexington a better place,” Gray said.
In 1963, Sykes became the first black man elected to public office in Lexington. He served five terms as city commissioner. He also a mayor pro tem, vice mayor and the city administrator during the earliest years of the merged government.
Sykes, who died in 2012, also pushed for the creation of the Urban League of Lexington, said P.G. Peeples, president and CEO of the Urban League. Peeples, who has been at the helm of the Urban League for 48 years, worked with Sykes.
Sykes was the right man to serve during the turbulent 1960s, several people said Friday.
Black politicians did not have it easy during that time, Peeples said.
“They caught hell from white people. They caught hell from black people,” he said.
But not Sykes.
“Mr. Sykes was one of the few people that I knew that could walk that thin line and satisfy both sides of the aisle,” Peeples said. “And he could do it with such dignity. I never saw him show frustration.”
Kevin Sykes said his mother, Geraldine, who attended Friday’s dedication ceremony, was the chief counselor during his father’s tenure in politics and government. The mother of five never wanted to be in the public eye.
“She never wanted to be in the spotlight, but she stood by him and stood with him. She was his counsel when he came home frustrated and didn’t know what to do,” Sykes said of his mother.
Sykes was a trailblazer before he became a politician. A native of Starkville, Miss., he received a bachelor’s degree from Kentucky State University and a master’s degree in math from the University of Minnesota. He moved to Lexington in 1954 to teach math at Dunbar High School. He also was a coach. Before that, he played two seasons with the Harlem Globetrotters.
“He was a truly transcendent individual,” Kevin Sykes said. “He did a lot to raise the plight of African-Americans or blacks in the city; he reached out to this entire community. He was not just a servant for black people. He was a servant for all of the people in this community.”