Accolades to Mayor Jim Gray for recommending that the street called Red Mile Place be renamed to honor Harry Sykes, who died in 2012. The street, which is off Red Mile Road, is in the council district of councilwoman Peggy Henson who also believes this important Lexingtonian deserves this honor.
Sykes was Lexington’s first black city commissioner, mayor pro tem and vice mayor. I worked as a campaign volunteer in his first campaign for city commissioner in 1963. Sykes won decisively.
Four years later, I ran for Lexington city commissioner on the Mayor Charles Wylie ticket which included Sykes, who was running for re-election. Two other city commission candidates were on the ticket.
In one of our early 1967 campaign experiences, Wylie drove a borrowed convertible with the top down. He wore a chauffeur’s cap while Sykes sat beside him on the front seat. Others of us sat in back. After reaching the mostly white neighborhood, we each began going door to door, handing out campaign brochures on different streets. Most all the people wanted to meet Harry, talk to Harry. They had become his supporters.
Wylie was elected mayor for four years that November and Sykes won more votes than any other commission candidate.
Weeks later, Wylie called the four just-elected commissioners to a private meeting in the mayor’s office. It had hardly begun before an aide summoned the mayor to receive a telephone call from a very prominent caller. When he returned, he told us who had called to insist that Sykes not be elected vice mayor. Certainly not in Lexington!
Immediately, we voted unanimously to elect Sykes vice mayor of Lexington. It was the custom. The commission candidate who got the most votes always became vice mayor.
In Lexington’s former city hall the mayor’s chair sat on a slight rise above the rostrum where two elected commissioners sat to his left, two to his right. In 1968, the audience every Thursday morning knew the very tall vice mayor sat to the major’s right. That new guy was on the mayor’s left.
Watching and listening while the mayor interacted with each audience member who sought recognition was, for me, an unforgettable experience.
You will remember the American heartbreakers of that year. Martin Luther King Jr. assassinated in April, Robert Kennedy in June. Lexington’s mayor and vice mayor in 1968 led Lexingtonians. How many American cities stayed as cool in those turbulent times?
Look for the beautiful painting of Mayor Charles Wylie at city hall. Now we can all participate in the street dedication to honor Harry Sykes. Hurrah.
Joe Graves of Lexington was inducted into the Kentucky Civil Rights Hall of Fame in 2003 for exemplary leadership in civil rights.
At issue: “Gray wants to name street for Harry Sykes, trailblazing Lexington politician,” by Beth Musgrave, Nov. 16