A couple of years ago, I had a great misfortune: I was introduced to Rudy Giuliani as Percy Sutton’s granddaughter. He was drunk and slurring a bit but he said that “I loved your grandfather. Percy Sutton! What a great man!” All I could do was smile and say, “Yes, he was a great man. We were all fortunate to have had him.” I could not in any way return the “love.” I am neither in the practice of lying nor staining my grandfather’s well-regarded legacy. In light of Rudy Giuliani’s most recent remarks about Stormy Daniels, I can’t help but recall lessons my grandfather learned from his father, and reflect on how badly I wish Giuliani had the same upbringing.
Percy Sutton’s parents, Samuel Johnson and Lillian Viola Sutton, were highly respected members of San Antonio society. In black society in the segregated South, being an educator was the pinnacle of respectability; L.V. Sutton was a teacher and S.J. Sutton, the principle of the only fully-appointed black high school in San Antonio. The Sutton family hosted intellectuals such as WEB DuBois and George Washington Carver for discussions of the state of black America, and as guests in their home. They sent their daughter and her friend to Howard’s medical, two of their sons to law schools (one became a New York State Supreme Court Judge, one became the Percy Sutton that we have all grown to love and respect), and all twelve of their children to college. The children became professionals of many sorts: a daughter who became a pediatrician, a scientist who moved to Russia under Carver’s tutelage to work on the uses of the peanut, another was the first black man elected to office in the Texas post-Reconstruction, real estate investors and lawyers, business people. In addition to being educators, my great-grandparents were also entrepreneurs: they had a mattress-making business, a funeral home and other businesses. The Suttons were impressive people who reared impressive people, but their position did not cause them to lose respect or empathy for all people.
Of the many stories my grandfather told me about his parents, one that has forever stuck with me- and has shaped me into the empathetic person I am- is the story of how his father treated the ladies of the night in San Antonio. Grandfather would tell me of a young Percy who would walk with his father in town, passing the prostitutes on the street. “Mr. Sutton,” they would coo, acknowledging his presence. With a tip of the hat, a gesture denoting respect for ladies, he would reply, “Good day, ladies,” and then turn to young Percy to explain that even if someone doesn’t respect oneself, they are still worthy of respect.
There is much baked into that one simple lesson. First, he taught young Percy that each person- based on their humanity alone- is worthy of respect. One’s appearance, station in society, profession, education level, race, religion or any other arbitrary divider, is not a prerequisite for one’s worthiness, rather a distraction from one’s innate humanity. Secondly, my grandfather would convey to me, he learned that one can inspire others to find respect in themselves by treating them as worthy of respect. Grandfather put a great deal of energy into inspiring respectability in the organizations he led: he was impeccably dressed, elegant and carried himself with great prestige; former employees took note and continually convey to me how important a lesson that was for them. He picked up trash in front of the Apollo Theater with his hands so that all others would know to do the same. The message: this beacon of black culture will be lifted, loved and respected. He insisted that all employees of our companies be referred to with title and last name, never first name, for he equated the use of first names with the degradation African-Americans experienced in the South. How we treated one another and carried ourselves was to become the foundation of these companies, each built on pride in ourselves and in our community.
Through this hat-tipping lesson, my grandfather took another important lesson: to be empathetic, not judgmental. He didn’t know the circumstances of those women… what had driven them to make the choice to sell their bodies? Perhaps they had been orphaned, reared in abject poverty, abused or otherwise disadvantaged. The point is that one does not know another’s full story an one does not need to know another’s full story- or even a partial story- to treat her with the respect that she deserves based purely on her humanity.
So, Mr. Giuliani, please note that, out of respect, I did not disparage you based on your appearance or other impediments. I think it wholly appropriate to dissect your record as a politician, lawyer and apparent spokesperson for Donald Trump, but we will save that for another time. Suffice it to say that for thirty years, you have demonstrated and made plain your lack of empathy, your bigotry, and now, a penchant for dishonesty. These are not honorable or respectable traits by any measure. But my focus- and the focus of this piece- is on following the hat-tipping example of my great-grandfather, Samuel Johnson Sutton. So to you, I offer respect for all are worth it- even you, Rudy Giuliani.